IBM researchers take storage down to the atomic level

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’s Almaden research lab in San Jose.

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.

Holmium atom

A view from IBM’s scanning tunneling microscope of a single atom of Holmium, which IBM researchers used as a magnet to store one bit of data. (Stan Olswekski for IBM)

“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.

“Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard disk drives, tape and next-generation magnetic memory,” Dr. Christopher Lutz, a nanoscience researcher at IBM’s Almaden lab, said in a statement. “We conducted this research to understand what happens when you shrink technology down to the most fundamental extreme — the atomic scale.”

For now, the technique is in its initial research stage. It’s unclear how long it will take to for it to make its way out of the lab and into commercial products.

“This is only one of a series of challenges in making ultra-dense storage a practical reality,” Lutz said in an email. To be commercialized, he added, “it would need to be manufacturable, durable, stable at room temperature, and have a read head or other means of accessing the bits rapidly.”

Photo: From left, IBM scientists Philip Willke, Chris Lutz and Kai Yang of IBM Research – Almaden in San Jose created the world’s smallest magnet from an atom to store one bit of data. (Stan Olswekski for IBM)


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