Researchers at Delft University have successfully created an atomic-scale rewritable storage drive with a storage density that’s 500 times larger than today’s best drives.

Sander Otte and his colleagues discovered that if you place chlorine atoms on a copper surface, they align themselves in a perfect grid. If an atom is missing from the grid, it results in a hole. By using the needle of a scanning tunneling microscope, the researchers were able to manipulate the atoms around the hole to create a type of on / off configuration that can be used to store data.

Otte told Gizmodo that the combination of chlorine atoms and supporting copper crystal surface they found combined with the fact that they can manipulate holes — just as in a sliding puzzle — makes for a much more reliable, reproducible and scalable manipulation technique that can easily be automated. The researcher described it as inventing the atomic scale printing press.

The team constructed a full kilobyte using 8,000 atomic bits which is by far the largest atomic structure ever built by humans.

As impressive as it is, the technology is still a long way from being feasible for everyday use. That’s because, in its current state, it can only function in a clean vacuum at liquid nitrogen temperatures of -346°F (-321°C). What’s more, while its storage capacity is massive, the technique still lags far behind read and write speeds of today’s storage products.

Otte remains optimistic, however, as he sees no physical boundaries that will prevent them from speeding up the process to similar speeds that are seen in current storage drives. It’ll be a technological challenge for sure, he concludes, but in terms of physics, it should work.