Researcher: Nanotech will replace disk drives in 10 years

Removing drives would make iPods, laptops and servers lighter, faster and more rugged

Nanotechnology will replace magnetic disk drives in iPods, laptops and servers within five to 10 years, making them more durable, lighter and faster.

That's according to Michael Kozicki, a researcher at Arizona State University who is developing ways to store data in nanowires instead of as electrons in cells. He's also researching ways to stack multiple layers of memory on top of a single layer of silicon.

All of this, Kozicki said, would mean dramatic advances in storage, as well as dramatic differences in the way we use our favorite devices.

"Someday you'll store all your music, movies, photos and favorite TV shows on something the size of an iPod. It'll all be right there," said Kozicki. "Nanotechnology will replace all the disk drives in the world. Sure, we could create a terabyte thumb drive, but if you could do that, why would you use magnetic disks that are everywhere from iPods to servers to data farms? If you drop a device, it could wreck the fragile disc drive. Not with this, though."

If device manufacturers can get rid of disk drives, laptops and MP3 players would be significantly more durable, faster and lighter, according to Kozicki. They also would boot up immediately and have much better memory capacity.

"This isn't pie in the sky," he said. "I'm not talking about flying robots delivering breakfast in the morning. This is not that far away. This is exciting to anyone who uses an iPod or a laptop or a server."

And Kozicki noted that he's not the only one looking to use nanotechnology in storage devices.

He pointed out that Micron Technology Inc., Qimonda AG and Adesto Technologies all have licensed such technology from Axon Technologies Corp., an Arizona State spin-off that commercializes its research. Kozicki also said Sony is experimenting with the technology but hasn't yet licensed it for official use.

"It's a tremendously exciting time," he added. "This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of companies working on this. Companies are turning to nanotechnology for the future of memory and storage."

The new technology could also be used to store multiple pieces of information in the same space that used to hold only one piece of data, Kozicki said.

Traditionally, each cell holds one bit of information. However, instead of storing simply a 0 or a 1, that cell could hold a 00 or a 01. Kozicki said the ability to double capacity that way -- without increasing the number of cells -- has already been proven. Now researchers are working to see how many pieces of data can be held by a single cell.

And another piece of the nano-storage puzzle lies in layering memory, he said.

Kozicki explained that today, only one layer of memory can sit on a silicon chip. Using ionized metal that he creates through nanoionics, he's able to stack memory layers -- two, four or maybe more -- on top of each other, and those layers would sit on top of the silicon.

However, Kozicki said he's also working on changing the way we store data now. Traditionally, information has been stored as electrons in cells. He is working on using nanowires to hold the data, using less energy and taking up less space than the capacitors that store the electrons.

"There's some fascinating things here," he added. "And interest in this has been keen."

Just last week, a professor and researcher at the University of Edinburgh School of Engineering and Electronics said he has made important strides in handling nanowires.

Michael Zaiser told Computerworld that he has been studying how tiny wires -- 1,000 times thinner than a human hair -- behave when manipulated. He explained that each miniscule wire tends to behave differently when put under the same amount of pressure. Therefore, it has been impossible to line them up close to each other in tiny microprocessors in a production atmosphere.

Zaiser said he's now figured out how to make the wires behave uniformly. He separates the interior material of the wire into distinct groups so the wire can't react as a whole. That makes it much easier to control. "It's like crowd control," he added. "If they can all go one way, you have a big mess."

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