A team of international researchers has found a way to store information on a single atom, a new study published in the journal Nature reports.
To do this, researchers used magnetism to encode data at the molecular level by building on past research that looked to create single-atom magnets. They used holmium for this because, unlike other elements, it is surrounded by single electrons that have matching magnetic fields. This makes them stable, and they cannot be altered unless they get a kick that causes the fields to flip directions.
The team placed holmium atoms inside the metal magnesium oxide. This prevented the molecules from falling apart under the influence of other electrons, so they would only change their fields if hit with a large burst of energy. That higher stability allowed them to “store” specific field orientations for longer periods of time. Once in that state, the fields could be used to encode binary information and the atoms turned into a unit of data known as a bit.
Researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope to manipulate pairs of holmium atoms with tiny electric currents, a process that allowed them to store up to two bits worth of information. In addition, the atoms kept their field through the whole study. That means they are a good medium to store information and could be used in future projects.
“For me, the most exciting part was that the holmium atoms never reversed their magnetization,” said lead author Fabian Natterer, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, according to Gizmodo.
Though researchers believe this is a big step towards pushing the limits of computing technology, a lot of work still must be done. Single-atom mass memories are still a long way off because it is very hard to get atoms to stay in place. The molecules tend to move around quite a bit, which can create problems when trying to use them for something like a hard drive. They can only be properly arranged at low temperatures.
In addition, the magnetic tape needed to make the field flip has to be so precise that any sort of disruption — such as bumping into it — can ruin its ability to read or write data. That is much too unpredictable for real world use.
Though the findings are simply proof of concept, they could still have major implications for the future of computing.
“We have opened up new possibilities for quantum nanoscience by controlling individual atoms precisely as we want,” said study co-author Andreas Heinrich, newly appointed Director of the Center for Quantum Nanoscience at the Institute for Basic Science, in a statement. “This research may spur innovation in commercial storage media that will expand the possibilities of miniaturizing data storage.”