Researchers at Caltech and the University of California, Los Angeles, have reached a new milestone in the effort to use individual molecules to store data, an approach that could dramatically shrink electronic circuitry. One hundred times as dense as today’s memory chips, the Caltech device is the largest-ever array of memory bits made of molecular switches, with 160,000 bits in all. In the device, information is stored in molecules called rotaxanes, each of which has two components. One is barbell shaped; the other is a ring of atoms that moves between two stations on the bar when a voltage is applied. Two perpendicular layers of 400 nanowires deliver the voltage, reading or writing information. It’s a big step forward from earlier prototype arrays of just a few thousand bits. “We thought that if we weren’t able to make something at this scale, people would say that this is just an academic exercise,” says James Heath, professor of chemistry at Caltech and one of the project’s researchers. He cautions, however, that “there are problems still. We’re not talking about technology that you would expect to come out tomorrow.”
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