IBM Creates World’s Smallest Magnetic Storage Device From 12 Atoms

Scanning tunneling microscope image of a byte of data in 8 12-atom increments. (Image: IBM via Wired)

According to IBM, the computer I’m typed these words on and the computer on which you’re reading them stores just one bit of data on about 1 million atoms.

But now, thanks to a new development by IBM, “12 is the new million.”

According to the company’s website, researchers have created the world’s smallest magnetic storage device. Why? IBM states that while the size of hard drives for computing devices have gotten smaller over the years (see the chart below), technology is reaching its limits of adhering to Moore’s Law, which states “the number of transistors on a microchip will approximately double every two years.” 

(Image: IBM)

IBM researchers knew they had to go smaller, but according to Wired, they didn’t know how small they could go for reliable data storage:

String together 8 atoms, for example, and you simply can’t get a stable magnetic state, says Andreas Heinrich, the IBM researcher behind the discovery. “The system will just spontaneously hop from one of those states to another state in a timescale that is too fast for us to claim anything like a data storage [demonstration]. It might be switching 1,000 times per second.”

Watch Heinrich explain more about how the IBM created this device:

But Wired notes a few problems need to be worked out before this ultra-small technology makes it to commercial hard drives:

Well, first off, they operate at 1 degree kelvin. That’s about -458 Fahrenheit. Bump things up to room temperature and Heinrich thinks it would take about 150 atoms per bit.

And there’s an even bigger problem. Nobody has a clue how to build something this small outside of the lab. And certainly, nobody can do it cheaply, Heinrich says. “That is something that many people are working on, but nobody has solved it yet.”

IBM states that once the technology is refined it could be the potential to host an entire music and movie collection on a storage device the size of a charm you could wear around your neck.