Engineers have created a material that could hold a trillion bytes (a terabyte) of data in a chip the size of a fingernail -- 50 times the capacity of today's best silicon-based chip technologies.
The engineers, from North Carolina State University, said their nanostructured Ni-MgO system can store up to 20 high-definition DVDs or 250 million pages of text, "far exceeding the storage capacities of today's computer memory systems."
The team of engineers was led by Jagdish "Jay" Narayan, director of the National Science Foundation Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures at the university.
The engineers made their breakthrough using the process of selective doping, in which an impurity is added to a material whose properties consequently change.
Working at the nanoscale, the engineers added metal nickel to magnesium oxide, a ceramic. The resulting material contained clusters of nickel atoms no bigger than 10 square nanometers -- a pinhead has a diameter of 1 million nanometers. The discovery represents a 90% size reduction compared with today's techniques, and an advancement that could boost computer storage capacity.
"Instead of making a chip that stores 20 gigabytes, you have one that can handle one terabyte, or 50 times more data," Narayan said in a press release.
The process also shows promise for boosting vehicles' fuel economy and reducing heat produced by semiconductors, a potentially important development for more efficient energy production.
By using the process of selective doping, the engineers could introduce metallic properties into ceramics, Narayan said. The process would allow them to develop a new generation of ceramic engines able to withstand twice the temperatures of normal engines. The engines could potentially achieve fuel economy of 80 miles per gallon, Narayan said.
And, since the thermal conductivity of the material would be improved, the technique could also have applications in harnessing alternative energy sources like solar energy.
The breakthrough using the process of selective doping also advances knowledge in the emerging field of "spintronics," which is dedicated to harnessing energy produced by the spinning of electrons.
"Most energy used today is harnessed through the movement of current and is limited by the amount of heat that it produces, but the energy created by the spinning of electrons produces no heat," the university state in a press release.
The engineers manipulated the nanomaterial so the electrons' spin within the material could be controlled, which could prove valuable to harnessing the electrons' energy. The finding could be important for engineers working to produce more efficient semiconductors.