IBM announced Thursday that after five years of work, its researchers have been able to reduce from about one million to 12 the number of atoms required to create a bit of data.
The breakthrough may someday allow data storage hardware manufacturers to produce products with capacities that are orders of magnitude greater than today's hard disk and flash drives.
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"Looking at this conservatively ... instead of 1TB on a device, you'd have 100TB to 150TB. Instead of being able to store all your songs on a drive, you'd be able to have all your videos on the device," said Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research Staff Member and lead investigator on this project.
Today, storage devices use ferromagnetic materials where the spin of atoms are aligned or in the same direction.
The IBM researchers used an unconventional form of magnetism called antiferromagnetism, where atoms spin in opposite directions, allowing scientists to create an experimental atomic-scale magnet memory that is at least 100 times denser than today's hard disk drives and solid-state memory chips.
The technology could also someday be applied to tape media.
While the science behind what IBM researchers accomplished is complex, the results are quite simple: They put a spin on the old adage that "opposites attract."
Instead today's method for magnetic storage where iron atoms are lined up with the same magnetic polarization, requiring greater distance between them, IBM created atoms with opposite magnetization, pulling them more tightly together.
"Moore's Law is basically the drive of the industry to shrink components down little by little and then solve the engineering challenges that go along with that but keeping the basic concepts the same. The basic concepts of magnetic data storage or even transistors haven't really changed over the past 20 years," Heinrich said. "The ultimate end of Moore's Law is a single atom. That's where we come in."
The researchers started with one iron atom and used the tip of scanning tunneling microscope to switch magnetic information in successive atoms. They worked their way up until eventually they succeeded in storing one bit of magnetic information reliably in 12 atoms. The tip of the scanning tunneling microscope was then used to switch the magnetic information in the bits from a zero to a one and back again, allowing researchers to store information.
IBM used iron atoms on copper nitrate to perform its experiments, but other materials could theoretically require even fewer atoms to store a bit of data.
The researchers then combined 86 bits to make one byte of data, such as a letter or number. IBM then put many of the bytes together to create information. The first word they spelled using the new technique: T-H-I-N-K, which required five bytes of information or 400 magnetized atoms.
"The atomic scale magnetic data storage is orders of magnitude smaller than a single conventional bit," said physicist Andreas Heinrich, lead project researcher at IBM's Almaden facility.
Heinrich is quick to point out that the breakthrough is more theoretical than practical at this point; storage manufacturers aren't going to build a storage devices that use a scanning tunneling microscope to switch bits back and forth to store data. But the research proves storage mediums can be vastly denser than they are today.
"If you look at magnetic data storage element in a solid state device, like a spintronics device [also known as magnetoelectronics] or in a hard disk drive, you have about one million atoms in each bit," Heinrich said. "So you have a lot of leeway from where we currently are."