IBM researchers take storage down to the atomic level

IBM's research arm has made a breakthrough in data storage by developing the world's smallest magnet and getting it to store one bit of data on a single atom, which means that in future storage devices could be able to store 1,000 times more information than today's hard disk drives and solid state memory chips.

IBM has successfully stored 1 bit of data on a single Holmium atom using their Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM).

The technology, when and if fully realized, would allow the entire iTunes library of more than 35 million songs to be stored on a device the size of a credit card, according to a company statement on the innovation.

By starting at the smallest unit of common matter, the atom, scientists demonstrated the reading and writing of a bit of information to the atom by using electrical current. They applied the current using a metal needle in a scanning tunneling microscope. "But the numbers already show that we are actually really close to the fundamental limit of classical storage technology, only three more orders of magnitude". Magnetic storage, the researchers explained, is the technique now used by hard disks and flash drives and is solid state, meaning that it does not require atoms to be moved around to work.

When everyone is talking about solid-state or some other kind of memory alternative (that lasts 1000 years) for the magnetic hard drives, a new research announced by IBM can save this magnet-based storage media from becoming extinct.

Attached to the magnesium oxide surface is the holmium atom, which scientists say is an ideal data storage medium given its stability. A view from IBM Research's Nobel prize-winning microscope of a single atom of Holmium, an rare earth element used as a magnet to store one bit of data. In tests they could reliably write and read back four possible states with each atom's magnetism being changed independently (00,01,10,11).

Given that all magnets have two poles, their orientation can be used to determine whether an atom is a 0 or a 1. 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. With the help of STM, they built and measured the isolated single atom bits using holmium atoms. However, despite tremendous research efforts, the magnetization of single atoms was never stable enough due to spontaneous fluctuations. Recently, they also announced that they had developed a new technique that offered a better way to measure the magnetic field of individual atoms and in a somewhat related development, also announced that they would be offering the world's first commercial "universal" quantum-computing service.

  • Tracy Ferguson