A team of IBM researchers just created the world’s smallest magnet using a solitary atom — and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, they packed it with one bit of digital data for good measure.
The breakthrough, which was recently described in the journal Nature, could lead to exciting data storage systems in the future. Current tech depends on hard disk drives that use up to 100,000 atoms to store one bit of data, according to IBM.
Future applications of this discovery could allow people to store 1,000 times more information in the same amount of space. For a more practical illustration of the scale, IBM says a system using the tiny magnets could potentially hold the entire iTunes music library — that’s 35 million songs — on a drive the size of a credit card. How’s that for compression?
IBM said in a statement the team’s goal was to understand what might happen when the tech in current disk drive systems was shrunk down to the most “fundamental extreme.” You can’t get more fundamental than a single atom, the smallest unit of common matter possible, so the researchers started the work at that level.
The team used IBM’s Nobel Prize-winning scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to create and monitor the magnets using holmium atoms. Then, they used an electrical current to write and read binary data (1s and 0s) on the atom.
Check out IBM’s video below, which gives some more insight into the project.
Our data might someday also be kept in an even more unlikely receptacle. Another recent breakthrough in storage technology could potentially allow us to keep digital information in strands of DNA. The practical development for these methods is far out in the future, though, so you’ll have to hold on to your normal-sized hard drives for at least a few more years.