IBM announced Thursday that after five years of work, its researchers have been able to reduce from about one million to 12 the number of atoms required to create a bit of data.
The breakthrough may someday allow data storage hardware manufacturers to produce products with capacities that are orders of magnitude greater than today's hard disk and flash drives.
"Looking at this conservatively ... instead of 1TB on a device you'd have 100TB to 150TB. Instead of being able to store all your songs on a drive, you'd be able to have all your videos on the device," said Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research Staff Member and lead investigator on this project.
Today, storage devices use ferromagnetic materials where the spin of atoms are aligned or in the same direction.
The IBM researchers used an unconventional form of magnetism called antiferromagnetism, where atoms spin in opposite directions, allowing scientists to create an experimental atomic-scale magnet memory that is at least 100 times denser than today's hard disk drives and solid-state memory chips.
The technology could also someday be applied to tape media.
While the science behind what IBM researchers accomplished is complex, the results are quite simple: They put a spin on the old adage that "opposites attract."
Instead today's method for magnetic storage where iron atoms are lined up with the same magnetic polarization, requiring greater distance between them, IBM created atoms with opposite magnetization, pulling them more tightly together.
"Moore's Law is basically the drive of the industry to shrink components down little by little and then solve the engineering challenges that go along with that but keeping the basic concepts the same. The basic concepts of magnetic data storage or even transistors haven't really changed over the past 20 years," Heinrich said. "The ultimate end of Moore's Law is a single atom. That's where we come in."
The researchers started with one iron atom and used the tip of scanning tunneling microscope to switch magnetic information in successive atoms. They worked their way up until eventually they succeeded in storing one bit of magnetic information reliably in 12 atoms. The tip of the scanning tunneling microscope was then used to switch the magnetic information in the bits from a zero to a one and back again, allowing researchers to store information.
Scanning tunneling microscope image of twelve iron atoms that were assembled into an atomically precise antiferromagnet (source: IBM Research)
IBM used iron atoms on copper nitrate to perform its experiments, but other materials could theoretically require even fewer atoms to store a bit of data.
The researchers then combined 86 bits make one byte of data, such as a letter or number. IBM then put many of the bytes together to create information. The first word they spelled using the new technique: T-H-I-N-K, which required five bytes of information or 400 magnetized atoms.
"The atomic scale magnetic data storage is orders of magnitude smaller than a single conventional bit," said physicist Andreas Heinrich, lead project researcher at IBM's Almaden facility.
Heinrich is quick to point out that the breakthrough is more theoretical than practical at this point; storage manufacturers aren't going to build a storage devices that use a scanning tunneling microscope to switch bits back and forth to store data.
But the research proves storage mediums can be vastly denser than they are today.
"If you look at magnetic data storage element in a solid state device, like a spintronics device [also known as magnetoelectronics] or in a hard disk drive, you have about one million atoms in each bit," Heinrich said. "So you have a lot of leeway from where we currently are."
Miniaturized information storage in atomic-scale antiferromagnets. The binary representation of the letter 'S' (01010011) was stored in the Neel states of eight iron atom arrays (source: IBM Research)
Heinrich predicted that devices using IBM's new method of data storage would take five to 10 years to develop, but the research is critical in that it proves previous theoretical limits to data storage do not exist.
"Using iron atoms on a copper nitrite surface is probably far from being a real technology. You don't want to build this with the tool we're using, which is a research tool," he said. "You want to build this cheaply for a mass environment, and that's a huge engineering challenge."
Antiferromagnets is not the only data storage project that IBM is working on. Last year, the company produced its first Racetrack Memory circuit , which could also lead to silicon chips with the capacity of today's hard drives, but the durability and performance of flash drives. Henrich, however, said Racetrack technology falls somewhere between today's storage mediums and IBM's most recent antiferromagnets discovery.
T-H-I-N-K ... This figure shows the a magnetic byte imaged 5 times in different magnetic states. A white signal on the right edge corresponds to logic 0 (and is labeled as such) and a blue signal to logic 1. Between two successive images the magnetic states of the bits were switched to encode the binary representation of the ASCII characters "THINK" (source: IBM Research)
"In the technology world, hopefully this will gather some momentum to allow them to use antiferromagnetic structures as active elements and then solve the all the technological problems around that," Heinrich added.