Technologies Of The Year -- IBM's Millipede March

Dec. 21, 2004
Company leads the way to probe-based data storage that is cheaper, denser and more compact than current methods.

Some say The Information Age began with the invention of the PC. For others, it's the birth of the Internet, the development of the silicon chip or the global crisscrossing of fiber-optic cable that shifted our societal pivot from goods-production to information management. In a couple of years, IBM Corp.'s Millipede data storage system might also enter the debate. Millipede harkens back to the days of computers gleaning information from punch cards, but this time, the information is stored in nanometer-sized indentations in a thin polymer film. According to the company, Millipede has the potential to provide significantly greater storage capacity than flash memory at a lower price. Another advantage: smaller and easier-to-use devices. "Imagine a video camera in which each segment you've recorded is displayed in a directory with a unique file name, instantly accessed, appended or erased at the push of a button," says Christopher Andrews, communications program manager for the Armonk, N.Y,-based company. "If you're on vacation and want to erase an old segment to make room for something new, there would be no need to hunt with 'rewind' and 'fast forward' to find the section of the tape you're looking for." Devices such as video cameras, portable video players and portable music players need more storage memory than flash memory can provide at an acceptable price, Andrews says. That's why most devices use tape or optical disks to store information. If these devices used Millipede-based storage cards, they could be smaller and use less power in addition to allowing data to be stored in downloadable files. "Millipede will likely offer a cost per gigabyte approximately five times cheaper than flash in high-end cards," Andrews says. "Millipede would make a lot of sense in devices like PDAs and smart phones." Although other companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Samsung are also pursuing probe-based data storage, IBM says it was among the first to invest heavily in research and development and is poised to be among the first to have probe-based devices on the market, possibly by 2005. This year, researchers at IBM's Zurich lab began restoring and retrieving data files using Millipede technology. Much of the work on Millipede has taken place in Zurich, but other IBM locations are involved. IBM plans to target flash memory immediately, a potential $10 billion market. Beyond that, Millipede could have implications in biotechnology and other nanotechnology fields. Millipede is based on two "breakthrough technologies," according to IBM: thermomechanical recording, in which an extremely sharp tip on a microcantilever with an integrated heater makes and reads back nanometer-scale indentations in a specialized polymer film; secondly, creation and integration of thousands of thermomechanical probes in a micromechanical array, married with a micromechanical actuator that scans the probes over the polymer surface to store and retrieve data in various locations on the film.

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