IBM scientists create smallest magnetic memory bit with 12 atoms

January 12, 2012

In IBM’s Almaden Research Center  in San Jose, California Andreas Heinrich gets to explore. His quest: Demonstrate that very few atoms are needed to store information. Why would anyone care? Because size matters.

Today, to store a single bit — the most basic piece of information a computer understands —  a disk drive needs one million atoms. Heinrich and his team have successfully shown that data can be stored in as few as 12 magnetic atoms.  That’s 12 versus 1 million and it means a hundred times more information can be stored in the same space.

The way it works it? By using a different magnetic structure called antiferromagnetism, Heinrich explains. Instead of atoms pointing (or spinning) in the same direction, Heinrich and his team arranged atoms so they alternately point  in different directions.

The result is that “they don’t talk to each other as much…they can be parked closer together”‘ Heinrich said.

In physics parlance that would be: “Taking advantage of their inherent alternating magnetic spin directions, they demonstrated the ability to pack adjacent magnetic bits much closer together than was previously possible.”

Heinrich, a German who received his Ph.D. from University of Goettingen, showed that this can be done at low temperature and by that we’re talking about 10 Kelvin which translates into about -260 degrees Celsius.

“I think 150 atoms should be stable at room temperature,” Heinrich said.

For the world outside the lab manipulating matter by its most basic component – the atom — can mean a way to build, faster, smaller and most of all more energy-efficient devices but that’s not easily replicated on a commercial scale.

“It took a room full of equipment worth about 1 million dollars and a whole lot of sweat,” Heinrich said of his research.

“The atoms are in a very regular pattern because we put them there,” Heinrich said. “Nobody knows how to make that cost effective in manufacturing…that’s the core issue of nanotechnology.”

Luckily, that’s not Heinrich’s problem.  His quest is to explore what is possible, allowing a glimpse of the future.

What would Heinrich like to show? “I want to be able to build a computer on atoms.”


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This reveals the limits of western computer technology. With a temperature of 10 degrees K (-260 C), one can store 83,333 times as much data, but it may cost $83.333 billion per unit. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined could not afford it.

Posted by alanchristopher | Report as abusive

I don’t understand that: “That’s 12 versus 1 million and it means a hundred times more information can be stored in the same space.” Looking naively at it, the factor seems to be rather 100000 than 100.

“matter by its most basic component – the atom —”. This is obviously not true from a physical perspective. Looking from the limited perspective of chemistry it may be considered true, even though I remember having learned about protons, electrons and neutrons in my few chemistry classes at highschool. In any case the claim that the atom is the most basic component of matter isn’t valid from the overall perspective even just of today’s mainstream natural sciences — the most basic of it being physics. It seems to me at least.

Posted by JanArthurVales | Report as abusive

The difference between the number of atoms required for a bit and the packing density of the memory is that in order to read the individual bits, they need to be spaced out, and that space is more significant when there are fewer atoms used per bit.

While atoms are in fact made of subatomic particles, the “most basic component” of manufacturing is the atom. For example, you can’t build a house out of neutrons and discard the protons and electrons.

Posted by ldw333 | Report as abusive