Evangelizing Mainframe
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A Quantum Leap in Data Storage

What’s the absolute smallest unit required to store data? It’s 12 magnetic atoms. That atomic discovery from IBM Research made big news last week as its findings were published in the journal Science

Using a scanning tunneling microscope and applying antiferromagnetism, nanotechnology scientists demonstrated that under certain lab conditions (in extremely low temperatures), a bit of data could be stored on as few as 12 iron atoms. At room temperature, however, researchers found they needed about 150 atoms to store a bit.

Still, by comparison, the computer or mobile device you’re reading this on requires about 1 million atoms to store a single bit of information. As a result, future applications of this technology could enable people to store 100 times more information in the same amount of space.

Exponential improvement in computer technology is nothing new. In accordance with Moore’s Law, data storage capabilities increase while costs decrease every few years. However, the silicon transistor technology behind this trend will eventually reach its fundamental physical limit.

Therefore, researchers are exploring alternative approaches, including the use of antiferromagnets, to power innovation. IBM predicts that the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level will lead to smaller, faster and more energy-efficient devices.

“The chip industry will continue its pursuit of incremental scaling in semiconductor technology but, as components continue to shrink, the march continues to the inevitable end point: the atom,” explains Andreas Heinrich, the lead investigator into atomic storage at IBM Research in Almaden, Calif. “We’re taking the opposite approach and starting with the smallest unit—single atoms—to build computing devices one atom at a time.”

For days, I struggled to put all of this in perspective as I tried to get a grip on the quantum scale of 12 atoms and 100 times more storage. Eventually, I turned to something I can grasp, literally: my iPhone.

Employing my limited math skills and my calculator app, I deduced that a 32 GB smartphone could store more than 3 TB of data, if IBM’s estimates are correct. That translates into about 750,000 songs from iTunes, with a total run time of three years or more. I better start downloading, now.

For more information, including a video demonstration of how this nanotechnology works, visit www.ibm.com/atomicscalememory.

Mike Westholder is site editor of Destinationz.org.

Posted: 1/24/2012 12:00:47 PM by Mike Westholder

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