April 11, 2008 Nanotechnology was more science fiction than fact when Dr. Eric Drexler released his seminal 'Engines of Creation: the Coming Era of Nanotechnology' in 1986. 20 years later, this revolutionary discipline, which focuses on the manipulation of matter at an atomic or sub-atomic level, is starting to bear fruits in a vast array of bleeding-edge technologies. With nanotech innovations spurring the latest advances from solar energy capture that works in the dark, to long-range, high-power, quick charging batteries for electric cars, to fog-free glass and smart self-thermoregulating fabrics already maturing as viable technologies, the latest advances in nanowire data storage from IBM seem set to thrash both hard drives and flash memory at their own games. It'll be incredibly fast, virtually indestructible thanks to no moving parts, its capacity will be absolutely enormous, it'll use next to no power and produce next to no heat - and it will be 100 times cheaper per byte than Flash memory. What's more, IBM says the public debut of this amazing "Racetrack" memory "could be closer than you think."
Let's first take a look at the problems holding back existing data storage technologies. The conventional hard drive relies on the spinning action of a disk to move magnetic data past a reader. The mechanics required to achieve this are relatively fragile - hard disks are easily damaged by impact or vibration - and there's also a practical limit to how fast the disc can be spun, not to mention the power drain it takes to do so, or the heat generated as it does.
Flash memory is much more robust than a hard drive, having no moving parts - but its capacity and lifetime are limited, and the process of writing to flash memory is anywhere up to 1,000 times slower than reading it, making it impractical as a primary storage solution. It's also significantly more expensive than a conventional hard drive.
IBM's new 'Racetrack' technology operates on the principle of moving streams of magnetic data up and down a vast series of tiny nanowires. Writing new data is done by passing electron spin momentum from one nanowire to another as electronic pulses push the strings of data up and down the nanowires at extreme speeds - and it's all done at an atomic scale.
"It has been an exciting adventure to have been involved with research into metal spintronics since its inception almost 20 years ago with our work on spin-valve structures," said Dr. Stuart Parkin (pictured), a research fellow at the IBM Almaden Research Centre in San Jose. "The combination of extraordinarily interesting physics and spintronic materials engineering, one atomic layer at a time, continues to be highly challenging and very rewarding."
Dr. Parkin claims that while Racetrack memory could be developed to create an MP3 player that could store as many as half a million songs, or 3,500 movies, it's what lies beyond our current expectations that's really exciting: "The promise of racetrack memory - for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket - could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet."
When will we see this next storage revolution hitting the market? IBM has no comment but to say the release "could be closer than you think." For more information and a short video presentation on how the technology operates, see the IBM press release.