New research from the University of Manchester (UK) suggests that storing data with a class of molecules known as single-molecule magnets is more feasible than previously thought. The result, published in Nature, shows that magnetic hysteresis, a memory effect that is a prerequisite of any data storage, is possible in individual molecules at -213°C, meaning that data servers could be cooled using liquid nitrogen (-196°C) instead of the far more expensive liquid helium (-269°C).
The potential for such molecular data storage is huge, according to Dr. David Mills and Dr. Nicholas Chilton, who led the university’s research group. Molecular technologies could store more than 25,000 GB of information in something approximately the size of a coin, they say, or roughly 200 terabits of data per square inch. “This is very exciting as magnetic hysteresis in single molecules implies the ability for binary data storage,” says Chilton. “Using single molecules for data storage could theoretically give 100 times higher data density than current technologies. Here we are approaching the temperature of liquid nitrogen, which would mean data storage in single molecules becomes much more viable from an economic point of view.”
Single-molecule magnets display a magnetic memory effect that is a requirement of any data storage and molecules containing lanthanide atoms have exhibited this phenomenon at the highest temperatures to date. Lanthanides are rare earth metals used in all forms of everyday electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. The team achieved its results using the lanthanide element dysprosium. “This advance eclipses the previous record which stood at -259°C, and took almost 20 years of research effort to reach,” says Mills. “We are now focused on the preparation of new molecules inspired by the design in this paper. Our aim is to achieve even higher operating temperatures in the future, ideally functioning above liquid nitrogen temperatures.”
The practical applications of molecular-level data storage could lead to much smaller hard drives that require less energy, meaning that data centers across the globe could become a lot more energy efficient. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative says the energy consumed at such centers could account for as much as two percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting any improvement in data storage and energy efficiency could also have huge benefits for the environment as well as vastly increasing the amount of information that can be stored.