Researchers have been able to achieve a remarkable success that could revolutionize how electronic devices store information. They have used a single atom as a single computer bit.
In a paper, published in Nature, the researchers have discussed how they have achieved this impressive feat. They placed holmium atoms on magnesium oxide and then used a scanning tunneling microscope to apply an electric current to the individual atoms. By doing so, they could change the direction of magnetization of those atoms.
The holmium atoms could be made pointing up or down, which is equivalent to a "0" or a "1" bit. Currently, normal magnetic storage found in computers or phones have millions of atoms whose properties can be changed to represent the two states of a bit.
The team was not only able to write those states, but also to read them back, showcasing the high magnetic stability of the atoms.
So far, the smallest magnetic storage that was developed consisted of groups of three to 12 atoms. Researchers previously thought that such small storage devices would be impossible to achieve or at least unstable, as at that level you’re leaving the realm of classical physics and venturing into the quantum world. Holmium seems to defy this expectation.
"There are no quantum mechanical effects between atoms of holmium," co-author Andreas Heinrich, director of the Center for Quantum Nanoscience within the Institute of Basic Science, said in a statement. "Now we want to know why."
Holmium atoms have also got another important characteristic: They can be packed very closely together, which could pave the wave for tiny high-density storage systems.
"We have opened up new possibilities for quantum nanoscience by controlling individual atoms precisely as we want," Heinrich continued. "This research may spur innovation in commercial storage media that will expand the possibilities of miniaturizing data storage."
Atomic storage is what some experts called the death of Moore’s Law, which states that the data that can be stored on a microchip doubles every 18 months. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that electronic devices will stop improving, it just shows that they will in the next few decades have to make the jump to quantum technologies to continue to be competitive.