January 23, 2003 11:00 AM PST

Microscopic 'Braille' points to new storage

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A team of European scientists is experimenting with a molecular-scale storage device that can be read like Braille and could lead to systems that hold nearly 100 gigabits of data per square inch.

The researchers from the chemistry departments at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the University of Bologna in Italy said they have discovered a class of materials that when gently nudged, form bumps in a predictable pattern that could be used to encode data.

"A number can be written as a string of bumps or dots," said Francesco Zerbetto, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Bologna and one of the authors of the findings to be published Thursday in the online edition of Science Magazine.

The scientists focused on thin films of molecules called rotaxanes, which are shaped like a barbell with smaller rings around its handle. Their architecture, according to the work, is "analogous to that of an abacus," which suggests that they could be used as switchable components to store information.

This technique represents another advancement in a field of research exploring ways to harness molecules for advanced data-storage methods. In December, researchers at the University of Oklahoma revealed details about an experiment that allowed them to reproduce an image that was encoded and stored for an instant within a liquid-crystal molecule.

In the Braille experiment, the pattern was stable in the lab for several days, according to the scientists. They are now working on optimizing the rotaxane structure to make it stable for a much longer period.

Still, these findings are at an experimental stage with commercialization more than five years away, according to researchers who also said that there remained much fundamental work to be done.

For one, scientists need to gain a stronger understanding of the process to fine-tune it. Another improvement would be to perfect the method for writing the information more quickly in a parallel way.

"It is necessary to develop a fast readout process, which may require using different rotaxanes," said Fabio Biscarini, a research scientist from University of Bologna and a member of the team. "The work is a proof of concept of a new process that can be used for information storage using new 'intelligent' molecules. This is just the beginning."


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