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IBM somehow crammed data into a single atom

The research breakthrough isn't yet practical, but it's the direction the industry is headed. Imagine storing 26 million songs in your smartwatch.

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​A view of the single holmium atom used IBM to store a 1 or 0.

A view of the single holmium atom used IBM to store a 1 or 0.

IBM Research

In the never-ending quest to improve computing technology, IBM has just taken a big step smaller: It's found a way to store data on a single atom.

A hard drive today takes about 100,000 atoms to store a single bit of data -- a 1 or 0. The IBM Research results announced Wednesday show how much more densely it might someday be possible to cram information.

How much more densely? Today, you can fit your personal music library into a storage device the size of a penny. With IBM's technique, you could fit Apple's entire music catalog of 26 million songs onto the same area, Big Blue said.

Atomic-level storage could radically change our computing devices. A smartwatch or ring could carry all your personal data, or businesses could keep potentially useful information that today they can't currently afford to preserve. And socking away lots of information is important for artificial intelligence, which has a voracious appetite for data used to train machine-learning systems to do their jobs.

The development is a step toward a vision outlined by famed physicist Richard Feynman, a pioneer of the possibilities of quantum computers that work at atomic scales. "We can in principle make a computing device in which the numbers are represented by a row of atoms, with each atom in either of the two states," Feynman said in a 1983 talk.

IBM researcher Chris Lutz stands by a microscope he and colleagues used to store a bit of data on a single atom at IBM Research's Almaden campus.

IBM and Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Big Blue's basic research into atomic-scale storage could be decades away from commercialization, said IBM researcher Chris Lutz.

"This work is not product development, but rather it is basic research intended to develop tools and understanding of what happens as we miniaturize devices down toward the ultimate limit of individual atom," Lutz said. "We are starting at individual atoms, and building up from there to invent new information technologies."

To make it practical, IBM would need to make atomic-scale storage economically manufacturable, fast at reading and writing data and stable enough to store data for long periods of time. IBM's atom stored data for the hours-long duration of the experiment, but real-world storage ideally would last years.

IBM can store a bit of data on a single atom, but the scanning tunneling microscope needed to do so is vastly larger. Here IBM microscope mechanic Bruce Melior stands by the device.

IBM and Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto

IBM's approach, developed at its Almaden research lab and published in the journal Nature, uses a single atom of the element holmium carefully placed on a surface of magnesium oxide. A special-purpose microscope uses a tiny amount of electrical current to flip the atom's orientation one way or the other, corresponding to writing a 1 or 0. The researchers then read the data by measuring the atom's electromagnetic properties.

IBM can be patient with basic research. After decades of research into quantum computing, IBM began its first commercial quantum computing services this week.

The last big transformation in storage was the shift from the spinning magnetic platters of hard drives to flash memory, chips that can read and write data faster and that have no moving parts to wear out. Your phone and faster PCs use flash memory. Flash memory chips remain more expensive than hard drives for storing a given amount of data, though, so both coexist today.

But progress is tough. "There is simply no perfect replacement today or in the next five years," said Scott Shadley, principal technologist of storage solutions at flash memory maker Micron.

Flash already has improved through 3D stacking technology to add new layers to memory chips. A promising successor to flash could be resistive random-access memory (ReRAM), which could store data more densely than flash by changing how well a tiny metallic filament conducts electricity.

Another possibility is storing in DNA, the molecules that record every living organism's genetic information.

They're all baby steps on the way to atomic-level storage. But the pressure to innovate is fierce. One way or another, the industry will find a way to let us shoehorn more video, photos and music into our phones.

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