IBM fits a bit on an atom, eyeing ever-smaller devices

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IBM fits a bit on an atom, eyeing ever-smaller devices

IBM has created the world's smallest magnet using a single atom, and used it to store one bit of data.

Among the breakthroughs at IBM is a scanning tunneling microscope whose inventor bagged the Nobel Prize. It creates possibilities for developing denser storage devices that are significantly small. "Finally, magnetic stability has been demonstrated undeniably in a single atom".

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.

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. They applied the current using a metal needle in a scanning tunneling microscope. But magnetic storage, the technique already used in tapes, disk drives, and flash, has the advantage of being solid state, so it doesn't require moving atoms around, said Christopher Lutz, the nanosciences researcher who led the IBM project.

The fundamental components of computers are becoming small enough that they are pressing against the boundaries of the familiar world of Newtonian physics.

IBM managed to cram a data in a single atom; it's a direction that's not yet practical, but data storage is headed that way nevertheless, CNET reported. Using this technique, as well as tunnel magnetoresistance, the researchers saw that holmium maintains the same magnetic state stably over several hours.

After making one atom store a bit, Lutz's team put two of the atoms next to each other to find out how close they could get and still be read independently.

IBM Research had defined the future of IT (Information Technology) for more than seven decades. Of course, this type of research doesn't yield consumer products right out of the gate, and it will likely be years before we see what devices, if any, can actually make use of this new, radically dense storage technology.

The data storage system uses a single atom of holmium, supported by magnesium oxide to help keep the magnetic poles of the atom stable. Once they confirmed that the atom was indeed changing its magnetic state, they set an iron atom down nearby, and based on the reaction of the atom, they could tell which magnetic state it was in at the time - essentially the equivalent as storing a 0 or a 1 in terms of data.

And there you have it: a single atom used to store what amounts to a 0 or a 1. Until now, it was unknown how few atoms it would take to build a reliable magnetic memory bit. About seven days ago, IBM also made the announcement regarding its plans to construct the first quantum computers for commercial and scientific purposes.

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