Stretching the limits of possibility, IBM has taken data into the realms of the infinite, right down to the atom in theory at least.
Scientists at IBM Research have demonstrated the ability to store information on as little as 12 atoms, the company claims, taking data capacity to a new order of magnitude.
Until now, it’s taken at least 1 million atoms to store any bit of data. IBM’s discovery could one day theoretically enable storage at 1/83,000th of today’s disk drives. The company has created the world’s smallest magnetic storage device, though the technology has a long journey to make before ever landing on a motherboard.
Until now, magnetic storage was limited by quantum mechanics, as maintaining a magnetic state was nearly impossible among several atoms. The atoms would simply hop from one state to another at too agile a time scale to claim data storage, Andreas Heinrich, the researcher behind the discovery, told Wired Magazine.
Until recently, scientists also faced the problem of keeping neighboring data bits from interfering with each other, as data was stored in a ferromagnetic structure using lumps of atoms in one direction, similar to a magnet or compass needle. IBM’s 12-atom approach utilizes an antiferromagnetic structure that points the atoms in opposite directions, which keeps the data bits from interfering with each other.
Researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope invented by IBM 30 years ago that allowed the scientists to view and arrange atoms.
The catch that currently limits the science to theory and laboratories is temperature. The 12-bit atom memory operates at 1 degree kelvin, or -458 degree Fahrenheit. Heinrich estimates that 150 atoms per bit could be achieved at room temperature, however.
The other problem is building something this small outside of a lab, or at least cost-effectively at a commercial scale. Actual devices using this technology would take five to 10 years to develop, Heinrich estimated.
“Using iron atoms on a copper nitrite surface is probably far from being a real technology. You don’t want to build this with the tool we’re using, which is a research tool,” Heinrich told ComputerWorld. “You want to build this cheaply for a mass environment, and that’s a huge engineering challenge.”
Regardless, the discovery proves that theoretical limits to data storage do not exist, which Heinrich characterized as mind blowing.
“Every once in a while, even we who work with this kind of stuff on an almost daily basis get blown away that it is actually possible,” Heinrich told Wired Magazine.