IBM Fits A Bit Into Twelve Atoms


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Science can sometimes just blow my mind. This is one of those times.

Researchers at IBM last week stored a bit, the smallest form of computer memory, into 12 atoms. They make the point of saying that this is significantly less than today’s hard drives that use about one million atoms to store a single bit of information. They say that the ability to manipulate matter by its most basic components could lead to our ability to build smaller, faster and more energy-efficient devices.

The usual route of technological advancement is to start out big and work your way down to smaller devices. The team at IBM flipped that notion on its head and started at the smallest they could go: a single atom. From there, they tested it to see how many atoms they could get before it would take to a single bit.

The researchers demonstrated magnetic storage that is at least 100 times more dense than today’s hard drives and solid state drives. Think of the load times off of something that compact. It would create a huge advancement in computing!

The team thinks that future applications of nanostructures built one atom at a time that apply their unconventional form of magnetism called antiferromagnetism could allow people to store 100 times more data in the same space of today’s disk drives.

“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. We’re taking the opposite approach and starting with the smallest unit -- single atoms -- to build computing devices one atom at a time.” Andreas Heinrich, the lead investigator into atomic storage at IBM Research – Almaden, in California, said.

For those wondering how they did it, IBM used ferromagnets which have similar properties to the magnets inside refrigerators. The ferromagnets align the spins of all of bound atoms in a single direction. The problem came from the bits on the atomic level that could strongly affect their neighboring bits. It took precise control on the part of the IMB researchers to control the interactions between the bits.

The researchers then used a scanning tunneling microscope to atomically engineer a group of twelve coupled atoms that stored a bit of data for hours at low temperatures. Taking advantage of their magnetic spin directions, they were able to pack the magnetic bits much closer together than was ever previously thought. They did all this without the atom structure becoming unstable.

The lead image shows a magnetic byte imaged five times in different magnetic states to store the ASCII code for each letter of the word THINK, IBM’s corporate mantra since 1914. The team achieved this by using 96 iron atoms, one bit was stored by 12 atoms and there are eight bits in each byte.

For those who want to know more or would prefer an audio-visual explanation of how they did it, IBM has you covered.