Electronics

Single-atom magnet paves way for denser storage devices

Single-atom magnet paves way f...
One bit of data was stored on a single atom of holmium, seen here through a scanning tunnelling microscope
One bit of data was stored on a single atom of holmium, seen here through a scanning tunnelling microscope
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One bit of data was stored on a single atom of holmium, seen here through a scanning tunnelling microscope
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One bit of data was stored on a single atom of holmium, seen here through a scanning tunnelling microscope
Christopher Lutz, using the scanning tunelling microscope to manipulate individual atoms 
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Christopher Lutz, using the scanning tunelling microscope to manipulate individual atoms 

The phone in your pocket can hold millions of times more information than a device the size of a fridge could decades ago, and for that we can thank continuous improvements to data storage density. Now, having created the world's smallest magnet, IBM has managed to store one bit of data in a single atom, in a breakthrough that could lead to storage devices that can hold 1,000 times more data in the same physical space as current HDDs.

For those who don't pay much attention to the wizardry going on inside their computer, hard disk drives store data magnetically, as a series of tiny magnetic dots on a sheet of metal. Each dot represents one bit of data: a demagnetized dot represents a zero, and if it's magnetized, it's a one. Although they're already pretty small, IBM's new research could shrink these data-storing units down from about 100,000 atoms each to just one.

"Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard disk drives, tape and next-generation magnetic memory," says Christopher Lutz, lead researcher on the study. "We conducted this research to understand what happens when you shrink technology down to the most fundamental extreme – the atomic scale."

To work at such a small scale, the researchers used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), a device that can manipulate individual atoms in a vacuum, safe from interference by air molecules or other factors. The atoms in question were of a rare-Earth element called holmium, and by applying an electrical current to them, the team was able to change their magnetic orientation, representing a binary bit of data. According to the scientists, that makes them the world's smallest magnets, and even when spaced just one nanometer apart, information on the atoms could be individually written and read.

In the future, a magnetic memory system that works with individual atoms, spaced this closely together, could allow for hard drives and solid state memory chips that are up to 1,000 times denser than those we use today. By way of illustration, the researchers use the example of being able to store 35 million songs – the entire library of iTunes – on a device no bigger than a credit card. That's good news for the massive data centers we need to keep the internet up and running.

The research was published in the journal Nature, and the team explains the study in the video below.

Source: IBM

Slideshow: IBM Research Created the World's Smallest Magnet -- an Atom

5 comments
LarryWolf
Jeeze and I spent tens of thousands of dollars on stupid archaic hard drives over the last 20 years. Makes me sick.
Kpar
A one-atom memory bit? Sounds unreliable. Still, it just sets a new lower limit for scaled data storage- even if one doesn't go all the way down to a single atom, it bodes well for a great reduction in size, not to mention reduced power requirements.
sk8dad
To read single atom bits, how close do the heads have to be? Particle and vibration caused catastrophic failure is already a concern in current HDD design. Conceivably, with a 10000x reduction, one can splurge on redundant bits?
Arahant
Its kinda like quantum comptuers, we know we can do it but the technology we need to be able to do it cant be replicated very easily. I have full faith one day we will, but considering you need to chill a quantum computer down to close to absolute zero and this device needs to be set up in a vacuum using a scanning tunnel microscope.. this will not be easily integrated into existing comptuers. That being said, almost certainly technology will improve by leaps and bounds and there is no reason to think we wont come up with ways to make it work... but this technology is alot different then what we use now.
highlandboy
The electron Tunneling microscope they are pictured beside in the news release is over a cubic metre in size. So this technology may be suitable for data centres, but is unlikely to be shrunk to a size and at a cost suitable for portable computing. But I would love to be proved wrong.