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IBM Researchers Store Bit Of Information On Just 12 Atoms

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Researchers claim ‘remarkable advance’ in data storage

IBM has announced that has successfully managed to store information in as few as 12 atoms.

The company says that this is at least 100 times denser than today’s hard disk drives and solid state memory chips and is the culmination of 30 years of nanotechnology research.

Ferromagnetism

Until now it was unknown how many atoms it would take to build a reliable magnetic memory bit, and while the use of Ferromagnetism, with properties similar to magnets used in a refrigerator, has worked well for magnetic data storage, the major obstacle to breaking them down has been how the neighbouring bits interact with each other as the magnetisation of one bit can strongly affect that of its neighbour.

Using a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), scientists were able to atomically engineer a group of antiferromagnetically coupled atoms that stored a bit of data for hours at a low temperature.

They took advantage of the magnets inherent alternating spin directions to pack magnetic bits closer together than was previously possible to greatly increase the magnetic storage density without disrupting the state of the neighbouring bits.

Reaching the limits

IBM says that the ability to manipulate matter atom by atom could lead to the “vital understanding necessary to build smaller, faster and more energy-efficient devices.”

There is widespread consensus that the technology will reach the physical limits of Moore’s Law in the next decade and that alternative approaches are necessary to continue the rapid pace of computing innovation.

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a microchip will double approximately every two years.

Instead of using disk drives that use one million atoms to store a single bit of information, this breakthrough, which may take between five and 10 years to be commercially viable, will enable users and businesses to store 100 times more data in the same place, according to researchers.

The power of the atom

“The chip industry will continue its pursuit of incremental scaling in semiconductor technology but, as components continue to shrink, the march continues to the inevitable end point: the atom,” commented Andreas Heinrich, lead investigator into atomic storage at IBM Research in Almaden, California.

“We’re taking the opposite approach and starting with the smallest unit – single atoms – to build computing devices one atom at a time,” he added.

The findings build on previous reports by IBM researchers, including one in September 2010 in which a technique that measured how long a single atom could hold data was outlined. Researchers used the STM to study the behaviour of atoms at a speed million times faster than before, which provided the basis for a study to ascertain whether information could be reliably stored on one atom.

At the other end of the scale, researchers at Almaden have also been working on a hard disk system capable of storing 120 petabytes, or more than 120 million gigabytes.