Scientists Store Data on a Single Atom for the First Time

The world of high-tech electronics is driven by packing more features into less space. That’s especially true for the electronic components, as described by Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law refers to an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since their invention. He predicted that this trend will continue into the foreseeable future.

One of the most important electronics components is storage memory that has gone from huge room-sized mechanical devices in the 1960s down to smaller and smaller magnetic hard drives that now provide hundreds of gigabytes of data in a three-inch disc. Memory is basically a series of 0’s and 1’s that are represented in various ways, depending on the storage medium.

Now researchers at IBM’s Almaden research labs in San Jose, Calif., and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, described in the journal Nature, have made a breakthrough that would seem to take the size of memory down to its ultimate limits. The researchers have created a memory system represented by a single atom.

The atom is the smallest unit of matter that is stable. By being able to put the atom in two different states, the scientists can now use it to represent a 0 and 1.

With this accomplishment, scientists can eventually store huge amounts of data in the tiniest of space. Of course, going from this controlled experiment to storage we can buy will take many years, but it shows what’s possible.

How did they do it? The scientists took a single holmium atom and placed it on a sheet of magnesium oxide to make the atom bistable. They used current from the tip of a scanning microscope to “shock” the holmium atom with a small voltage to flip the magnetic north and south poles, switching its state from 1 to 0 and back.

Holmium is a chemical element with symbol Ho and atomic number 67 and is a rare earth element.

Ultimately, when atoms can be used for memory, their storage will be about 1000 times more efficient than current magnetic media used, allowing tens of millions of songs to fit on a credit card in our wallet.

Chris Lutz, staff scientist at IBM Almaden, noted to IEEE magazine that we shouldn’t expect to be carrying around mobile phones anytime soon with this memory.  The current experiments were done at -452 degrees Fahrenheit to keep the atoms still.


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