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January 15, 2012

IBM scientists create smallest magnetic memory bit with 12 atoms


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.”
Heinrich, a German who received his Ph.D. from University of Goettingen, showed that this can be done at low temperature and by that we’re talking about 10 Kelvin which translates into about -260 degrees Celsius.
“I think 150 atoms should be stable at room temperature,” Heinrich said.
For the world outside the lab manipulating matter by its most basic component – the atom — can mean a way to build, faster, smaller and most of all more energy-efficient devices but that’s not easily replicated on a commercial scale.
“It took a room full of equipment worth about 1 million dollars and a whole lot of sweat,” Heinrich said of his research.
“The atoms are in a very regular pattern because we put them there,” Heinrich said. “Nobody knows how to make that cost effective in manufacturing…that’s the core issue of nanotechnology.”
Luckily, that’s not Heinrich’s problem.  His quest is to explore what is possible, allowing a glimpse of the future.
What would Heinrich like to show? “I want to be able to build a computer on atoms.”

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