IBM Research – Almaden physicist Andreas Heinrich explains the industry-wide need to examine the future of storage at the atomic scale and how he and his teammates started with 1 atom and a scanning tunneling microscope and eventually succeeded in storing one bit of magnetic information reliably in 12 atoms. A bit can have a value of 0 or 1 and is the most basic form of information in computation.

“Roughly every two years hard drives become denser,” research lead author Sebastian Loth told the BBC. “The obvious question to ask is how long can we keep going. And the fundamental physical limit is the world of atoms. The approach that we used is to jump to the very end, check if we can store information in one atom, and if not one atom, how many do we need?”

The groups of atoms, which were kept at very low temperatures, were arranged using a scanning tunnelling microscope. Researchers were subsequently able to form a byte made of eight of the 12-atom bits.

“We kept building larger structures until we emerged out of the quantum mechanical into the classical data storage regime and we reached this limit at 12 atoms.”

The move from the lab to the production may be some time away, but the technique opens up the possibility of producing much denser forms of magnetic computer memory than today’s hard disk drives and solid state memory chips.