Storing data in a single atom is now possible

In the never-ending quest to improve computing technology, IBM has just taken a big step. It has found a way to store data on a single atom.

The research breakthrough isn’t practical yet, but it is the direction the industry is headed to. The research was carried out at IBM’s Almaden lab in Silicon Valley. It was published in the scientific journal Nature and will have massive implications for the way we’ll store digital information in the future.

As IBM states in its release, the average hard drive uses about 100,000 atoms to store a single bit of information using traditional methods. The IBM Research results show how densely it can be possible to store information one day.

Today, you can store your personal music library in a storage device which can be the size of a coin. With IBM’s technique, you could fit a music library of 26 million songs in the same space, IBM said.

Atomic-level storage could radically change our computing devices. A smartwatch could carry all your personal data or businesses could potentially store useful information that they can’t afford to preserve today.

IBM says the researchers used a single iron atom to measure the magnetic field of the holmium atoms—turning it to measure what states the holmium atoms were in, like a tiny compass, a scanning tunneling microscope and a powerful microscope developed by IBM to image the surface of individual atoms. The needle tip of the microscope was used to pass current through the atoms.

“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”.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Big Blue’s basic research into atomic-scale storage could be decades away from commercialization, said IBM researcher Chris Lutz.

“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,” Lutz said. “We are starting at individual atoms, and building up from there to invent new information technologies.”

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