Scientists have demoed a new type of nano-memory capable of storing several times the amount of information as a high-end laptop on a single square inch.

A joint UCLA and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) team report in the journal Nature that they were able to create a working model of an "ultra-dense" 160 kilobit memory system using molecules of bi-stable roxatane laid out at the intersections of a nano-wire grid.

With 400 wires running in each direction, the clumps of molecules at these intersections were successfully switched between two different states, with voltages varied to allow addressing of each individual junction.

The density of this small device offers figures that will make the storage industry sit up and take notice. Today’s most promising technologies, including IBM’s Millipede, can fit in the region of 1 Terabit per square inch, many times the capacity of the leading magnetic and holographic designs.

The UCLA/Caltech design was able to cram a reported 100,000,000,000 bits per square centimetre, equivalent to 650 Gigabits per square inch, approaching that of the IBM project’s most optimistic figures and also many times that of leading-edge magnetic designs.

Where the Caltech design will score, however, is that it is a proof-of-concept research design using a technology that promises much higher densities for the future. "For this commercial dream to be realised, many fundamental challenges of nano-fabrication must be solved first," said the UCLA’s "maestro of molecules" Sir James F. Stoddart, who coincidentally received his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II last month.

"The use of bi-stable molecules as the unit of information storage promises scalability to this density and beyond. However, there remain many questions as to how these memory devices will work over a prolonged period of time. This research is an initial step toward answering some of those questions,” he said.

In proving the viability of a nano-scale technology, the advance is to have proved that it can be scaled into a working computing device, at least in the lab. The technology put the possibilities of memory technology into an area it had been expected to reach only by 2020, said Stoddart.

The first beneficiaries of the technology will most likely be the ones that have funded so many computing advances - the US military. The team’s nano-memory work is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).