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Years ago we laughed at the idea of filling up our 20Mb hard drives–our mind-set just wasn’t tuned for what was to come years ahead. Today purchasing a 1TB hard drive is quite common, and data continues to expand while hard drives keep up with that demand. In all, hard drive data storage has done well keeping up–IBM is breaking a new barrier.

IBM’s latest breakthrough will expand data storage to a new height, taking our 1TB hard drives to 150TB.  By storing magnetic information on 12 atoms, rather than our current hard drivers which use a large amount of atoms, IBM is able to use less magnetic bits to store the same amount of data on less atoms. This, of course, is about 5 to 10 years away for consumers and was performed at low temperatures–about 1 degree Kelvin, which corresponds to about -272 °C (-458 °F).

“We use low temperatures because it enables us to start from one atom and assemble bigger and bigger structures while keeping an eye on their magnetic properties. The more atoms we use to make each bit, the more stable the bits become. We anticipate that in order to make bits of this type that are stable at room temperature would require about 150 atoms per bit (rather than 12 atoms at low temperatures),” an IBM spokesman said.

The most basic piece of information that a computer understands is a bit. Much like a light that can be switched on or off, a bit can have only one of two values: “1″ or “0″. Until now, it was unknown how many atoms it would take to build a reliable magnetic memory bit.

With properties similar to those of magnets on a refrigerator, ferromagnets use a magnetic interaction between its constituent atoms that align all their spins – the origin of the atoms’ magnetism – in a single direction. Ferromagnets have worked well for magnetic data storage but a major obstacle for miniaturizing this down to atomic dimensions is the interaction of neighboring bits with each other. The magnetization of one magnetic bit can strongly affect that of its neighbor as a result of its magnetic field. Harnessing magnetic bits at the atomic scale to hold information or perform useful computing operations requires precise control of the interactions between the bits.

The scientists at IBM Research used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to atomically engineer a grouping of twelve antiferromagnetically coupled atoms that stored a bit of data for hours at low temperatures. 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. This greatly increased the magnetic storage density without disrupting the state of neighboring bits.

“Looking at this conservatively … instead of 1TB on a device you’d have 100TB to 150TB. Instead of being able to store all your songs on a drive, you’d be able to have all your videos on the device,” said Andreas Heinrich, the lead scientist on the project.

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“Moore’s Law is basically the drive of the industry to shrink components down little by little and then solve the engineering challenges that go along with that but keeping the basic concepts the same. The basic concepts of magnetic data storage or even transistors haven’t really changed over the past 20 years,” he said. “The ultimate end of Moore’s Law is a single atom. That’s where we come in.”

via IBM


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