News Worms
News Worms

IBM built an atomic hard drive

IBM built an atomic hard drive

Computers, which read bits of data in a series of 0s and 1s, may eventually be able to store significantly more amounts of data in a much denser fashion.

A team of IBM researchers have managed to store one bit of data in a single atom, in a breakthrough that could potentially change the way storage devices are developed in the future.

The scientists used an IBM-invented, Nobel prize-winning scanning tunneling microscope to demonstrate technology that could someday store the entire iTunes library of 35 million songs in a credit card sized storage device.

Prior to the discovery, the smallest bistable magnetic bits consisted of 3 to 12 atoms, IBM said, and hard drives use about 10,000 atoms to store a single bit. Other scientists have used single atoms for storage before, including in experimental devices that used the atoms' location to store data.

"Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard-disk drives, tape and next-generation magnetic memory", said Christopher Lutz, lead nanoscience researcher at IBM Research Almaden in San Jose, California. This worked with just one nanometer between the atoms. And nowhere is the scale and precision of operation on better display than in hard disk drives, where a trillion bits may fit in a square inch. This project is pure research, meant to help researchers develop the tools and knowledge that will lead them to the next round of discoveries.

As memory devices are becoming increasingly smaller, it was hypothesized whether the elementary storage unit could one day be as small as a single atom. Having stable magnets comprised of just one atom raises much more interesting questions and ideas, such as nanotechnology applications. It also uses liquid helium for the cooling process.

"Anything you can carry around is going to have to relax those conditions - unless it's a special-purpose supercomputer", Lutz said. Researchers previously thought that such small storage devices would be impossible to achieve or at least unstable, as at that level you're leaving the realm of classical physics and venturing into the quantum world.

IBM magnetized individual atoms the element called holmium and used north and south poles of magnetism as stand in for 1s and 0s.

Dr Andreas Heinrich, from the Institute of Basic Science (IBS) in Korea and former IBM researcher, said: "It doesn't get any smaller than a single atom". Moreover, this orientation can even be flipped around using an electric current to represent a different value. It also plans to use the scanning tunneling microscope to investigate quantum information processing by leveraging individual magnetic atoms.

Using these methods, the scientists showed how the magnetic remanence of single atoms can be used to store information in them. This new research helps to read and write one-bit data on one atom.


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