Atomic storage

The world’s smallest storage device consists of just 12 atoms. This atomic-level storage device only contains one bit of data. This is a major leap in computer storage, one that could have long lasting impacts in the future of computing. This creation was the product of research conducted by IBM and the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science.

IBM. Photo from Creative Commons.

To put into perspective just how amazing of a breakthrough this research is, it currently takes millions of atoms to make up one bit on a standard hard drive. With this latest research it takes only 96 atoms to create one byte compared to the half a billion atoms it takes to store one byte of data currently on present-day computers.

IBM and their research partners at the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science made this discovery as they pursued a simple question: How many atoms does it take to create a reliable and lasting bit of information? They used an electron tunnel scanning microscope to create patterns in iron atoms. Through trial and error, they discovered that all it took was a set of six atoms to create a stable bit of memory.

Any smaller and the atom would have to fluctuate between negative and positive charges too quickly to be of any use in storing information. The way we currently store data is by assigning a numerical value of 0 and 1 to positive and negative charges. As these charges fluctuate, computers read them in what is known as binary code. This binary code is the building block to any computer program in existence.

While this discovery could have exciting ramifications for the size of future storage devices, the process required to create the 12 atom bit is expensive and impractical for current-day usage. This research as described in this paper should be seen as more of a proof-of-concept than an applicable advancement in the field of computer storage. Along with discovering the smallest possible compressed size for a bit of data to be stored, it also proved the usage of antiferromagnets; ferromagnents are used to store data on hard drives and just about any storage device. This advancement allows atoms to be pushed closer together than ever before, increasing the storage density of the atomic sets.

While any practical usage that has been discovered by these two companies is still years into the future, it does give the science community a guideline for how small storage can get. As technological devices continue to get smaller while consuming and saving greater volumes of data, discoveries like this are what enables devices to continue to progress and push the envelope of what is possible, ensuring the rapid growth and change in technology can continue until the next major breakthrough.