How IBM turned a single atom into a tiny hard drive

ARMONK, N.Y. — Nanoscientists have managed to pack a bit of data onto a single atom — an impressive milestone that paves the way for smaller computers with bigger memories.

On Wednesday, IBM researchers announced the feat in a paper published in Nature, an international science journal.

“We conducted this research to understand what happens when you shrink technology down to the most fundamental extreme — the atomic scale,” Christopher Lutz, a nanoscience researcher at IBM, said in a statement.

Computer hard drives use magnets — which are made up of atoms — to store information. Hard drives on the market right now can store one bit of data on a magnet made up of 100,000 atoms.

But the IBM team packed the same amount of data onto the world’s smallest magnet, which is made up on a single atom. Magnets tend to become more unstable as they get smaller, and scientists previously thought such a small one wouldn’t be able to support data.

“It’s a landmark achievement,” Sander Otte, a physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said in a news release announcing the research. “Finally, magnetic stability has been demonstrated undeniably in a single atom.”

The single-atom magnet is truly tiny.

“If an atom was the size of an orange, then the orange would be the size of the whole planet Earth,” IBM researcher Andreas Heinrich explained in a 2013 video.

From 1 million, to 12, to one

The computer industry’s race to make smaller hard drives that hold more and more data is a decades-old competitive tradition.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore named it in 1965, when he noticed that computer processors seemed to double in speed and power every two years thanks to rapid progress in engineering.

Since then, Moore’s Law has been the driving concept of computer innovation: Make devices that run twice as fast and hold twice as much every other year.

IBM has taken the race especially seriously. In 2012, the company announced its research team had fit a bit of data onto just 12 atoms. Previously, 1 million atoms would be needed to support that amount of data.

While the technology didn’t immediately spread to commercial computers (hard drives sold in stores today still require between 1 million and 100,000 atoms to hold a bit of data), the tech world lauded the achievement. IT blog Compterworld even congratulated IBM on “smashing” Moore’s Law.

But IBM said it was ready to go even further.

“The ultimate end of Moore’s Law is a single atom. That’s where we come in,” Heinrich said at the time.

Decades away from commercialization

IBM’s discovery that it’s possible to put a bit of data on a single atom could mean smaller, more powerful consumer electronics.

Current computers can store users’ personal music library on a penny-sized device, CNET explained. But with IBM’s breakthrough, a similar sized storage device would hold all 26 million songs available in Apple’s iTunes store.

“You could carry around, not just, you know, two movies on your iPhone or something,” Heinrich said. “You could carry around any movie that was ever produced.”

But super-powerful smartphones and laptops won’t be hitting electronic store shelves anytime soon.

IBM’s research only proves that it’s possible to store data on the world’s smallest unit of matter — not that it’s commercially feasible. After all, consumer electronics haven’t even adopted the 12-atom method IBM outlined five years ago; the single-atom system could be decades off.

“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 told CNET.