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.”