A Stanford-led team of scientists has developed a new way to store data by sliding atomically thin layers of metal over one another.
According to the team lead and associate professor Aaron Lindenberg, this new approach could help pack more data into less space than silicon chips, while also using less energy.
The Stanford team were ably assisted by UC Berkeley mechanical engineer Xiang Zhang, Texas A&M materials scientist Xiaofeng Qian, and Stanford/SLAC Professor Thomas Devereaux.
Their breakthrough is based on a newly discovered class of metals that form incredibly thin layers – in this case just three atoms thick.
The scientists first stacked these layers, made from a metal known as tungsten ditelluride, like a nanoscale deck of cards.
By injecting a tiny bit of electricity into the stack, they caused each odd-numbered layer to shift ever-so-slightly relative to the even-numbered layers above and below it.
The offset was permanent, or non-volatile, until another jolt of electricity caused the odd and even layers to once again realign.
According to Lindenberg, the arrangement of the layers becomes a method for encoding information, creating the on-off, 1s-and-0s that store binary data.
To read the digital data stored between these shifting layers of atoms, the researchers exploit a quantum property known as Berry curvature, which acts like a magnetic field to manipulate the electrons in the material to read the arrangement of the layers without disturbing the stack.
According to Jun Xiao, a postdoc in Lindenberg’s lab and first author of the paper, it takes very little energy to shift the layers back and forth.
This means it should take much less energy to ‘write’ a zero or one to the new device than is required for today’s non-volatile memory technologies.
Furthermore, the sliding of the atomic layers can occur so rapidly that data storage could be accomplished more than a hundred times faster than with current technologies.
The team has patented their technology and is working on refining their memory prototype and design even further.
They also plan to seek out other 2D materials that could work even better as data storage mediums than tungsten ditelluride.
Image and content: Ella Maru Studios/Stanford University