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IBM Researchers Store Data At Atomic Level On The World’s Smallest Magnet

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Nanotechnology and quantum tunneling look to be the future of data storage

IBM has manged to store a single bit of data on a magnet the size of a single atom, demonstrating the potential for data storage to be carried out at an atomic level.

Scientists at IBM Research managed this feat of data storage by inventing a special-purpose scanning tunnelling microscope designed for imaging and introducing a current to elements at an atomic level, which IBM invented several decades ago and won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Big Blue’s researchers used the microscope to introduce a tiny electrical charge to an atom of the element holmium, which was placed on a surface of magnesium oxide.

The current was used to flip the orientations of the polarity of the atom, which can be used to correspond to the binary 1 or 0, essentially allowing for a bit of data to be written on the atom; data is subsequently read through the measurement of the atoms electromagnetic properties.

Atomic data storage

IBM ResearchThe technique, which is a form of quantum tunneling, has been dubbed spin resonance and has been published in the peer-review journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Spin resonance enables atoms to be written and read independently at a width of just one nanometre, a billionth of a metre; current hard disk drive can store a bit of data on around 100,000 atoms. So the breakthrough could eventually yield densely packed storage systems than can store large amounts of data in significantly smaller devices, think credit-card sized devices that can fit in tens of millions of songs in digital format.

However, it will be some time before IBM start pushing out this technology into commercial products.

“This work is not product development, but rather it is basic research intended to develop tools and understanding of what happens as we miniaturize devices down toward the ultimate limit of individual atom,” said IBM’s lead nanoscience researcher Chris Lutz. “We are starting at individual atoms, and building up from there to invent new information technologies.”

With increasing amounts of data being harvested and produced for all manner of operation and workloads, having a way to store it more effectively would be a boon for everyone from hardware makers to enterprise IT workers.

Big Blue is not alone in pursuing memory-focussed research; HPE recently debuted it latest work on The Machine, a memory-focussed computer that looks to change traditional computing architecture.

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