Your one-gigabyte thumb drive holds around 8.5 billion bits of data, and it takes about a million atoms to store each of those bits. That's a lot of atoms, and computer scientists are constantly working to shrink that number to fit more data into a smaller space.
On Thursday, scientists from IBM reported in the journal Science that they fit a single bit of data into just 12 atoms -- far fewer than have ever been reported before -- by taking advantage of their magnetism.
What exactly does that mean? Computers read binary codes: that is, they convert encoded bits, the oft-mentioned zeroes and ones, into a message. And, as of now, these two bits are kept distinct by the precise arrangement of around one million atoms, with one pattern standing for a zero, and another for a one.
The reason modern data storage requires so many atoms is that atoms are magnetized. You know what happens when two negatively-poled magnets are pushed together: they repel one another. If you're trying to create two distinct patterns of atoms to clearly represent 'zero' and 'one' with no possibility of confusion, this repulsion ensures that your bit will take up a lot of space so that the atomic patterns remain stable.
The IBM researchers decided that this repulsion was slowing them down. To get around it, they instead tried to line up atoms with opposite poles. To do this, they placed a single iron atom on a copper nitride surface and then, using a scanning tunneling microscope, switched the polarization of each successive atom manually to form a negative-positive-negative-positive pattern, six atoms long by two atoms wide.
Once they had the 12 atoms painstakingly arranged, they then used their microscope to switch the magnetic poles of the entire set -- and, in the process, created a binary system. So, for example, a negative-positive-negative arrangement represented a zero, while positive-negative-positive represented a one.
Being able to store so much data on such a small scale is incredibly exciting, and not just so that you can carry your entire music library in your pocket. Some of the problems hindering genomic research, for example, are as simple as how and where to store all the accumulated data. And that potential of their finding is not lost on the researchers.
"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," Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research Staff Member and lead investigator on this project, told ComputerWorld.
However, you won't find this at the store in the immediate future. First of all, the IBM researchers had to use a scanning tunneling microscope to arrange each atom one by one, equipment and training which isn't necessarily available to most flash drive manufacturers. Additionally, they had to cool the atoms to just a few degrees above absolute zero to keep the 12-atom pattern stable.
"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," an an IBM spokesman told ComputerWorld. "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)."
To learn more, watch this video produced by the IBM team.
Photo: IBM Research Zurich/Flickr