Saturday 13th August 2022

The Race to the Bottom

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Contrary to entrenched popular lore, earthshaking inventions hardly ever spring fully formed from the overheated brain of a single supergenius. They blow in with the intellectual zeitgeist, products of an era when many researchers know something big is about to happen and pursue it with the intensity of sharks feasting on a fresh seal carcass.

Thus, for every Alexander Graham Bell, there was an Elisha Gray; for every Thomas Edison, a Joseph Swan. And someday, if nanotechnology makes good on its promise to revolutionize human society, Gerd Binnig will have his Tom Rust. Or, perhaps, Tom Rust will have his Gerd Binnig.

Binnig, a Nobel laureate in physics and a star in IBM Corp.’s metamorphosing research apparatus, and Rust, a self-taught engineer who founded a start-up with a staff of 16, are in many ways nanotechnology’s least likely pair of combatants. They’re a couple of mavericks who, after 20 years of hunches, feverish experimentation, and perpetually mutating designs, are now on the brink of what could be nanotechnology’s first truly big commercial breakthrough: a memory system that could up the ante in the high-stakes struggle to keep data storage on a par with the pitiless pace of advances in consumer and computing electronics.

With longstanding promises of infinitesimal machines that manipulate matter literally atom by atom, advances in nanotechnology and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) have been the stuff of countless research theses, business plans (mostly failed ones), and science fiction plots. After all, when the atom is your building block, materials of astounding properties, vastly faster and smaller electronics, and even synthetic human tissues are all within the realm of possibility.

So far, though, nanotech and MEMS have delivered much more breathless hype than broadly transformative technology. And that’s why the emerging nano- and MEMS-based data-storage application, which is called probe storage, has corporate researchers in a feeding frenzy. Packing Brobdingnagian memories in Lilliputian packages, probe drives are prime candidates to combine the low cost, high capacity, and random-access features of ordinary magnetic hard-disk drives with the low power draw, high data rate, small size, and nonvolatility of solid-state flash memories. In so doing, they could fuel burgeoning markets for super-high-capacity personal media players and pocketable computers with storage far exceeding that of today’s desktop models.

Demonstrations in the last few years by companies like IBM and Rust’s company, Nanochip Inc., in Fremont, Calif., show that probe drives can cram a terabit (128 gigabytes) into each square inch of memory media. (The industry’s standard measure for the density of bits that can be packed onto storage media is expressed in the English unit of inches.) For contrast, conventional magnetic hard drives, such as the one-inch microdrives found in products like the Apple iPod, can at best achieve only 250 to 300 gigabits per square inch. They are subject to the superparamagnetic limit, the density above which magnetic domains are so small that thermal fluctuations interfere with the medium’s ability to hold steady magnetization and, therefore, data. The huge capacity of probe systems translates into as many as 125 hours of DVD-quality video recording time, which would allow digital video camera makers to dump those bulky, power-sucking tape drives and shrink camcorders to fit in shirt pockets. Media players that now rely on DVD drives could store 25 movies on a chip and lose the drive altogether.

Developers of probe drives expect that the first generation of devices—which could be on the market as soon as January 2007—will compete directly with flash memory, now a staple in digital cameras, cellphones, USB key-chain memories, and MP3 players. Flash was a US $4.8 billion market in 2004, according to Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.—and it’s growing, to $8.4 billion by 2008, Gartner predicts.

With a potential market worth billions, IBM and Nanochip have plenty of competition in probe drives. Seagate and Samsung are pouring millions into probe-storage R&D; Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, and Philips have all explored probe drives over the last few years.

Nevertheless, IBM and Nanochip are unquestionably in the front rank, having worked on the technology longer than any other companies and having logged major prototype milestones in the last year. In recent years IBM has been focusing more and more of its R&D on software that helps corporate computer systems monitor and administer themselves automatically and on services to optimize business processes for corporate clients. Its probe-storage project, called Millipede, is something of a throwback to the days when hardware ruled in Big Blue’s labs. Since IBM no longer has the facilities to manufacture Millipede devices, the company is considering looking for a partner to commercialize it, according to Karin Vey, communications manager at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory (ZRL), where the Millipede project is based. Vey emphasizes that IBM has not yet made a final decision about Millipede’s commercial future and that “it is conceivable that the Millipede technology will not be sold as a product by itself but will find its way into other products.” But to knowledgeable outsiders, Millipede seems to be a technology looking for a home, or at least a licensee.

For the privately held Nanochip, meanwhile, the challenge is that of any start-up: getting technology to market before funding runs out. So it isn’t much of a stretch to say that the near-term future of one of the most promising memory technologies in decades is in the hands of a colossal multinational that isn’t sure what it wants to do with it and a tiny start-up that is burning its venture capital with each passing day.

Supposedly stupendous memory technologies have come and gone before without ever ruffling the commercial market. Holographic memory as a mass-market technology has been “just around the corner” for at least 25 years. More recently, schemes based on molecules or even bacterial proteins have excited researchers before turning out to have essentially insurmountable manufacturing, longevity, or other problems.

What makes probe memory different is that it is based on proven technologies. Probe memory is an offshoot of the scanning probe microscope, a form of which was invented in 1981 by Binnig (hence his Nobel prize) and Heinrich Rohrer, a Swiss physicist who retired in 1997 after 34 years at ZRL. These nonoptical microscopes, which include the scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopes, scan the surface being examined with the tip of a long, thin wisp of metal or silicon called a cantilever. The cantilever’s probe tip is just atoms wide, so it maps surfaces with atomic-scale resolution.

Photo of Rust, Knight, and Binnig
The Pioneers of Probe: Nanochip founder and CTO Tom Rust (left) and CEO Gordon Knight are vying for the nanotech-storage prize. Nobel laureate Gerd Binnig (far right), inventor of the scanning probe and atomic force microscopes, is the driving force behind IBM’s Millipede project.
Photos: Pat Mazzera; Christian Dietrich

Basically, a probe memory uses arrays of dozens or hundreds of these same tips to write, read, and erase nanoscale bits in neat columns on a piece of storage medium made of specially engineered plastic or an exotic alloy. Depending on the probe-drive design, either the storage medium or the probe-tip array is mounted on a moving platform, which scans the stationary component to align the tips with either bits to be read or locations where bits are to be written. To write, read, or erase data, the tips are heated and then pressed onto the medium. Because the tips are so fine, the bits occupy spaces on the medium just 10 nanometers wide, or roughly the width of 100 hydrogen atoms.

Like a hard disk drive or an optical disc drive, a probe-drive system accesses data at random locations by reading current through the tips as they pass over the bits to determine whether they are 1s or 0s. Control circuitry aligns the mechanical components with nanometer precision, and error-correction codes ensure the integrity of the data being written and read. The basic concept has been proved over and over by both IBM and Nanochip. The game now is making the memory devices cheaply by the millions and fabricating probe tips that, despite their extreme delicacy, can withstand the…

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