IBM stores data on a single atom

abstract of colorful atom
Credit: Thinkstock

What good is a single atom these days?

Well, aside from being essential for, I dunno, most everything, you can now store data on one. That is right, store data on a single atom. But how did researchers achieve that?

In IT Blogwatch, we jump on the miniaturization bandwagon.

What is going on? Mike Wehner has some background:

IBM...announced...that it...successfully managed to store data on a single atom, achievement that could potentially change the way storage devices are developed in the future...modern hard drives utilize roughly 100,000 atoms to store a single bit, so shrinking things down to the size of just one atom is obviously a massive achievement.

Remind us what a bit of data exactly is again? Michael Irving has that info:

For those who don't pay...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...if it's magnetized, it's a one.

And they managed to get that on a single atom? How did they even do that? Mike Murphy is in the know:

IBM’s researchers found a way to magnetize individual atoms of the rare earth element holmium and use the two poles of stand-ins for the 1s and 0s. The holmium atoms are attached to a surface of...magnesium oxide, which holds them in place, at a chilly 5 kelvin (-450°F). Using essentially what is a very...small needle, the researchers can pass an electrical current through the holmium atoms, which causes their north and south poles to flip, replicating the process of writing information to a traditional magnetic hard drive. The atoms stay in whatever state they’ve been flipped into, and by measuring the magnetism of the atoms at a later point, the scientists can see what state the atom is, mirroring the way a computer reads information it’s stored on a hard drive...IBM says the researchers used a single iron atom to measure the magnetic field of the holmium atoms.

What does this mean for the future? Tas Bindi tells us:

IBM...demonstrated that two magnetic atoms could be written and read independently even when they were separated by just 1 nanometre, which could culminate in a magnetic storage system...1,000 times denser than today's hard disk drives and solid state memory chips. Additionally...such a system significantly more data which could pave the way for smaller datacentres, computers, and mobile devices.

So is this something we are going to start seeing around? Stephen Lawson can answer that:

Don’t expect to see a phone the size of your little finger anytime soon. This project is pure research...For one thing, their experiment required conditions that aren’t practical for most devices. It needed an ultra-high vacuum, low vibration, and liquid helium for a super-low temperature.
The team just wanted to achieve the maximum possible density...Now researchers can use what IBM learned to develop new high-density storage that works outside a lab, probably using a small number of atoms that can help each other remain stable at room temperature.

So what are people saying about all this? Darryn Ten sums it up nicely:

Oh my that's impressive.
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