Shape of things to comeAtomic-level data storage theoretically possible

Published 31 August 2007

In a major breakthrough, IBM researchers show that it should be possible to use individual atoms, or groups of atoms, to store data or act as a transistor; insight to lead to incredibly tiny chips, storage devices, sensors —and to applications yet to be imagined

Small is beautiful — and here is a major theoretical breakthrough on the nanotechnology front. IBM researchers show that it should be possible to use individual atoms, or groups of atoms, to store data or act as a transistor.

Their work revolves around harnessing magnetic anisotropy, a property of atoms, and the findings are published in this week’s issue of the journal Science. The researchers used IBM’s special scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to manipulate individual iron atoms and arranged them with atomic precision on a specially prepared copper surface. They then determined the orientation and strength of the magnetic anisotropy of the individual iron atoms. Something is anisotrophic if it has different values when it faces in different directions. Thus, if a substance is anisotrophic and the orientation of the substance can be controlled, then, in theory, the orientation of the atom can come to represent the 1s and 0s of digital computing. Atomic-level storage or switching could result in incredibly tiny computer chips, storage devices, sensors, and in applications which are yet to be imagined: The sheer smallness of atomic-level storage capabilities would open the door for new kinds of structures and devices which are so small they could be applied to entire new fields and disciplines beyond traditional computing.

The first paper describes major progress in probing magnetic anisotropy in individual atoms. This fundamental measurement has important technological consequences because it determines an atom’s ability to store information. Until the IBM’s breakthrough, nobody had been able to measure the magnetic anisotropy of a single atom. More work would lead to the building of structures consisting of small clusters of atoms, or even individual atoms, which could reliably — and accessibly — store magnetic information. The second paper describes the first single-molecule switch that can operate flawlessly without disrupting the molecule’s outer frame — a significant step toward building computing elements at the molecular scale which are vastly smaller, faster, and use less energy than today’s computer chips and memory devices. Important: In addition to switching within a single molecule, the researchers also demonstrated that atoms inside one molecule can be used to switch atoms in an adjacent molecule, representing a rudimentary logic element. This is made possible partly because the molecular framework is not disturbed.

“One of the major challenges for the IT industry today is shrinking the bit size used for data storage to the smallest possible features, while increasing the capacity,” Gian-Luca Bona, manager of science and technology at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, told Physorg. “We are working at the ultimate edge of what is possible -