Storing Data on a Single Atom

In the electronics industry, the march of time brings with it a reduction in size. Our electronic devices, while getting faster, better and cheaper, also tend to get smaller. One of the main reasons for this is the storage medium for binary data gets smaller and more efficient. Many can recall the EPROM, which is about the size of your thumb. Today we walk around with SD cards that can hold an order of magnitude more data, which can fit on your thumb’s nail.

Naturally, we must ask ourselves where the limit lies. Just how small can memory storage get? How about a single atom! IBM along with a handful international scientists have managed to store two bits of information on two pairs of holmium atoms. Using a scanning tunneling microscope, they were able to write data to the atoms, which held the data for an extended period of time.

Holmium is a large atom, weighing in at a whopping 67 AMU. It’s a rare earth metal from the lanthanide series on the periodic table. Its electron configuration is such that many of the orbiting electrons are not paired. Recall from our article on the periodic table that paired electrons must have opposite spin, which has the unfortunate consequence of causing the individual magnetic fields to cancel. The fact that holmium has so many unpaired electrons makes it ideal for manipulation.

While you won’t be seeing atom-level memory on the next Raspberry Pi, it’s still neat to see what the future holds.

Thanks to [Itay] for the tip!

Via Gizmodo.

11 thoughts on “Storing Data on a Single Atom

  1. Comparing EPROM to SD…..

    2708 were probably the first well known EPROMs and were 1KB. This was preceded by the Intel 1702 which was only 256B.

    SD cards are now 8GB to 128GB readily available. Anything less than 8GB is scarce, and IIRC 256GB are available too.

    That’s more like 7 orders of magnitude to me.

    What is more amazing is the old 19″ 6 high platter hard disc (yep they were spelt disc back then) 10MB drives were the size of a washing machine, took a surge up to 40A at 240Vac to start, and cost about $16,000 in 1976. Compare that to a microSD 8GB card for $6.

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