IBM researchers revolutionize data storage using atoms

IBM researchers revolutionize data storage using atoms

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January 13, 2012

Researchers at IBM announced this week they had successfully stored a bit of data on only 12 magnetic atoms.

Scientists from the company said that in doing so, they were able to significantly outperform current disk drive technology, which uses approximately 1 million atoms to store a single bit of information. Experts said that the new findings could usher in a new era in which scientists are able to manipulate matter at its most fundamental makeup.

The breakthrough findings could also help scientists circumvent one of the greatest challenges of the modern computing era, as the growth in speed and efficiency of chips has slowed. Engineers have endeavored to develop alternative chips that do not rely on silicon technology, and IBM researchers were able to greatly augment data storage capacity without using the alloy.

In fact, IBM's design was able to metaphorically kill two birds with one stone, as it is capable of both storing significantly more information and using far less energy than standard models. Shan X. Wang, the director of Stanford University's Center for Magnetic Nanotechnology, asserted the findings were extremely important, affirming they could spur an entirely new approach to chip engineering.

"Magnetic materials are extremely useful and strategically important to many major economies, but there aren’t that many of them," Wang told The New York Times. "To make a brand new material is very intriguing and scientifically very important."

IBM claims its design is at least 100 times denser than today's hard disk drives and solid-state memory chips. Moreover, company scientists contended that future iterations of the magnetic chip that apply antiferromagnetism – an atypical type of magnetism – could enable businesses and computer owners to store 100 times as much information in the same amount of space.

"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," IBM Research atomic storage lead investigator Andreas Heinrich said in a statement. "We're taking the opposite approach and starting with the smallest unit - single atoms - to build computing devices one atom at a time."

Before IBM's latest breakthrough, it took roughly 1 million atoms to store a bit of data, CNET reports. To say that the company's latest technological advancement is extraordinary in terms of potential efficiency improvements is a gross understatement.

"For those keeping score at home, IBM's discovery could mean storage could one day be possible at 1/83,000th the scale of today's disk drives," according to CNET.

IBM scientists employed a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to atomically engineer a group of 12 atoms, which were coupled using antiferromagnetism. The researchers noted that they were able to take advantage of the alternating magnetic spins of each atom, which allowed them to set nearby magnetic bits at a very short distance –impossible given current storage technology. As a result, the scientists were able to significantly increase magnetic storage density without negatively affecting the adjacent magnetic bits.

The biggest question they faced during their research was how many atoms it would take to create a magnetic bit in which it was possible to effectively store data.  That figure, according to Heinrich, is 12.

While researchers across the world salivated over the findings, IBM said that it has not established a timeframe for bringing the data storage system to mass markets. Heinrich noted that the company – rather than the researchers – will decide when and how to manufacture and market the data storage system on a large-scale.

The scientists' findings, "Bistability in Atomic-Scale Antiferromagnets," were published in the journal Science this week.


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