There are breakthroughs in engineering and then there are feats. IBM managed to perform a bit of both as it managed to store data on the world’s smallest magnet — a single atom! True, the data in question was merely a single bit, but the importance of this event can be understood from the fact that there are billions of atoms in any conceivable amount of matter.
The researchers at IBM demonstrated the technology using a scanning tunneling microscope. Apparently, the scope of the technology is vast enough to enable scientists to bring data storage to the point where in all the songs on the iTunes story could be stored on a chip the size of a credit card. Think about that for a bit. Oh, and we should probably mention that the iTunes library has over 35 million songs.
To put things into greater perspective, get a load of this: Hard disks use almost 100,000 atoms to store one bit of data at present. And IBM has managed to store the same amount of data on a single atom!
Speaking on the topic, Christopher Lutz, nanoscience researcher at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, said:
Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard disk drives, tape and next-generation magnetic memory. We conducted this research to understand what happens when you shrink technology down to the most fundamental extreme — the atomic scale.
Scientists were able to read and write a single bit of data to an atom using just electrical current. They were also able to demonstrate that two magnetic atoms can be read and written all on their own, even when they are separated by one nanometer — using of course, the electrical current.
So here is how it works in short: The researchers stuck a single Holmium atom to a particular Magnesium Oxide surface to ensure that the north and south poles of the magnet (atom) hold. Now, an electric current is used to flip the direction of the atom — leading to what is writing on the atom. Researchers can also use the same technique to read the direction of the north and south pole of the atom. The north-south direction is taken as ‘0’ and ‘1’ and the rest, is history.
The implications of this technology is huge. Someday, and hopefully someday soon, other would be able to build upon what IBM has achieved and create chips that can store 1,000 times more data over the same area as compared to today’s technology. This if and when it happened, would make everything from data centers to computers to personal devices, way more powerful than they are.
IBM has managed this feat so it is probably fair to expect the company to be at the forefront of the race to commercialize storage on the basic building bloc of matter. And breakthroughs like this folks, are exactly why corporations divert so much money into research. Of course, commercialization will still take years and years, but the first steps towards vastly more powerful computing and storage systems has already been taken.