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IBM creates smallest memory bit ever

DAILYHOSTNEWS, January16, 2012 – IBM scientists have successfully demonstrated the ability to store data in 12 magnetic atoms, which is at least 100 times more capacity than today’s disk drives have, the company said Thursday. Disk drives on the market currently use about 1m atoms to store one bit of data.

The implications of being able to manipulate matter atom by atom (its most basic known components) are that technology companies will be able to build smaller, faster and more energy-efficient devices, IBM said.

Andreas Heinrich, lead investigator into atomic storage at IBM Research, said the processor industry’s pursuit of incremental scaling in semiconductor technology as devices shrunk in size was headed toward an inevitable end point: the atom.

“We’re taking the opposite approach and starting with the smallest unit — single atoms — to build computing devices one atom at a time,” Heinrich said.

Until now, scientists did not know how many atoms are necessary to build a reliable magnetic memory bit. By taking an unusual approach to grouping magnetic atoms together, researchers were able to pack a lot more atoms per unit of space than they ever could before.

They did this by manually assembling a magnetic-storage medium atom-by-atom, using atoms with an unusual magnetic property called “antiferromagnetism”. It allows for a much tighter control of magnetic interaction between adjacent atoms, allowing for placing them closer together.

The key challenge was maximizing precision with which magnetic interaction between atoms occurs. “The magnetization of one magnetic bit can strongly affect that of its neighbor as a result of its magnetic field,” IBM said.

To overcome this challenge, IBM scientists used a scanning tunneling microscope to atomically engineer a grouping of twelve antiferromagnetic atoms that stored one bit of data for several hours at low temperatures.

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