IBM announced it has managed to successfully store data on a single atom for the first time.
Prior to the discovery, the smallest bistable magnetic bits consisted of 3 to 12 atoms, IBM said, and hard drives use about 10,000 atoms to store a single bit.
Computers, which read bits of data in a series of 0s and 1s, may eventually be able to store significantly more amounts of data in a much denser fashion.
Their proof of concept could one day lead to credit card-sized hard drives capable of holding the entire 35 million song iTunes library. The atoms stay in whatever state they've been flipped into, and by measuring the magnetism of the atoms at a later point, the scientists can see what state the atom is, mirroring the way a computer reads information it's stored on a hard drive.
"Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard-disk drives, tape and next-generation magnetic memory", said Christopher Lutz, lead nanoscience researcher at IBM Research Almaden in San Jose, California.
"This work is not product development, but rather it is basic research meant to develop tools and understanding of what happens as we miniaturize devices down toward the ultimate limit of individual atom,"Lutz told CNET". Computers, data hubs and personal gizmos can be made so small that they nearly seem to disappear on the material scale of magnitude.
The IBM scientists used the STM, an IBM invention that won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics, to view and move holmium atoms. Current storage devices require about 100,000 atoms per bit of storage that they have within them.
IBM researchers used electrical current to read and write the bit of information.
The custom microscope operates in extreme vacuum conditions to eliminate interference by air molecules and other contamination, IBM said. However, despite tremendous research efforts, the magnetization of single atoms was never stable enough due to spontaneous fluctuations.
With a line-up of such achievements, the atomic research too will prove to be another feather of success for IBM Research.
This advance may be more symbolic than practical right now, but merely showing a working example of atomic data storage, orders of magnitude smaller than state of the art techniques, is practically science fiction. The quantum mechanical technique called "spin resonance" allowed the researchers to use a single iron atom as a sensor to measure the magnetic field of each holmium atom.
The single-atom magnet is truly tiny: "If an atom was the size of an orange, then the orange would be the size of the whole planet Earth", IBM researcher Andreas Heinrichexplained in a 2013 video.
Attached to the magnesium oxide surface is the holmium atom, which scientists say is an ideal data storage medium given its stability.