IBM researchers take storage down to the atomic level

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Thursday, Mar 9, 2017

Sometime in the future, you might be able to carry around hundreds of terabytes of data — enough to hold the entire iTunes music catalog — on a device the size of credit card, thanks to a new research breakthrough from IBM…

IBM researchers have demonstrated the ability to store a bit of data on a single atom, the company announced on Thursday. By contrast, current hard drives require about 100,000 atoms for every bit they store.

Taking into account the space needed between atoms that would allow computers to store and read data to them independently, the new technique could result in devices that store 1,000 times more data in the same amount of space as current hard drives, IBM said.

IBM researchers take storage down to the atomic level 1

“It doesn’t get any smaller than a single atom,” Dr. Andreas Heinrich, a former IBM Research scientist who now works for Korea’s Institute of Basic Science, said in a statement. “We’re excited about the potential for dramatically different storage that’s more compact and robust than anything we’ve previously seen.”

Researchers published their findings Thursday in the journal Nature.

The IBM technique used an atom of holmium, a highly magnetic rare-earth metal that has the equivalent of north and south magnetic poles. Researchers attached the holmium atom to a surface made of magnesium oxide, a material that helps keep the orientation of holmium’s poles stable.

Using a scanning tunneling microscope, researchers were able to induce an electric charge and flip the orientation of the holmium atom. By controlling which direction the atom faced, researchers were essentially able to store on it a bit of information — a one or a zero in binary code, the basic language of computers. Researchers were able to read the orientation of the atom using a single iron atom that was able to measure the holmium atom’s magnetic field.