Above IBM used a scanning tunneling microscope to store one bit on the world's smallest
10 March, 2017, 00:07
It has been done using a single atom and stored one bit of data on it. For comparison, current mechanical hard drives rely on approx 100,000 atoms for magnetic storage of a single data bit.
The ability to read and write one bit on one atom creates "new possibilities for developing smaller and denser storage devices", said the company.
To read from and write to single-atom magnets the scientists used two high-precision methods based on a scanning tunneling microscope, which is essentially a sharp, atom-thick metallic tip that is scanned along a surface.
Next, they used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to apply roughly a 150 millivolt shock at 10 microamps to the atom, which caused the Holmium atom's magnetic spin state to be altered. 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.
"Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard-disk drives, tape, and next-generation magnetic memory", Christopher Lutz, nanoscience researcher at IBM's Almaden lab, said in a release.
'We conducted this research to understand what happens when you shrink technology down to the most fundamental extreme - the atomic scale'. Additionally, with a one-bit-per-atom ratio, such a system could also store significantly more data which could pave the way for smaller datacentres, computers, and mobile devices, IBM said. In 1986, IBM won a Nobel prize for creating the microscope which they originally built in 1981.
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. The custom microscope operates in extreme vacuum conditions to eliminate interference by air molecules and other contamination.
In a paper published today in Nature, the team of researchers which includes IBM's own scientists reveal exactly how they managed to fit data onto a single atom.
While commercial applications are unlikely to emerge overnight, it does represent a quantum leap in data storage technology and shows great promise for the future.
The IBM technique used an atom of holmium, a highly magnetic rare-earth metal that has the equivalent of north and south magnetic poles. However, despite tremendous research efforts, the magnetization of single atoms was never stable enough due to spontaneous fluctuations.
Although atomic-scale storage devices are still decades away from being commercially viable, the research demonstrates that reading and writing information on an atom is theoretically possible - the first step toward the creation of storage devices not circumscribed by Moore's law.
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