IBM Researchers Store Data At Atomic Level On The World's Smallest Magnet

Now, having created the world's smallest magnet, IBM has managed to store one bit of data in a single atom, in a breakthrough that could lead to storage devices that can hold 1,000 times more data in the same physical space as current HDDs.

To do this, they used IBM's scanning tunnelling microscope (which famously won the Nobel Prize for Physics back in 1986) to place an atom of the chemical element Holmium on top of a bed of magnesium oxide.

At present, conventional hard drives use about 1,00,000 atoms to store a single bit of data. Although they're already pretty small, IBM's new research could shrink these data-storing units down from about 100,000 atoms each to just one. For example, such devices may enable the storage of nearly 35 million songs on a credit card sized device. This is the ultimate storage feat - one bit on one magnetic atom. Future scanning tunneling microscope studies will investigate the potential of performing quantum information processing using individual magnetic atoms.

"Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard-disk drives, tape, and next-generation magnetic memory", said IBM Almaden lab nanoscience researcher Christopher Lutz in a release.


When everyone is talking about solid-state or some other kind of memory alternative (that lasts 1000 years) for the magnetic hard drives, a new research announced by IBM can save this magnet-based storage media from becoming extinct.

Electronics get faster, smaller, and (hopefully) more reliable as time passes, but the march towards the miniature only has one logical place to end, and that's at the atomic level. Two magnetic atoms could be read and written on an individual basis even when they were separated by a distance of one nanometer. Scientists can then measure the magnetic current passing though the atom to determine whether its value is "1" or "0". By controlling which direction the atom faced, researchers were essentially able to store on it a bit of information - a one or a zero in binary code, the basic language of computers.

When the STM introduces electrical current to the holmium atom, it flips the magnetic north and south poles of the atom, IBM explained. This atom has many unpaired electrons and in this state has a property known as magnetic bistability - two stable magnetic states with different spins exhibited. The advances could improve data storage efficiency by orders of magnitude, but the technology is far from being market-ready. IBM had also announced earlier this month that it will build the first quantum computers for commercial, business and scientific use. This helps the atoms in retaining their magnetic orientations long enough to be read and written reliably.

  • Joey Payne