an atom
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Atom: The itsy, bitsy bit storage device
Scientists at IBM have proven that they can encode computer code on a single atom. As the digital universe is expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020, scientists are grabbling with the twin problem of computer data's limited lifespan when it is normally stored on a hard drive and running out storage devices.

Atoms are the smallest unit of matter that can be reliably manipulated and expected to remain stable. IBM's research means that storing data digitally on atoms could advance storage capacity on a molecular level.

Researchers [are] using holmium atoms because they are highly magnetic, and using the scanning tunneling microscope, used the magnetism to detect the atoms' orientation.

By running 75 millivolts through the atoms, the microscope can detect whether the atoms are facing up or down. Using a larger voltage of 150 millivolts, researchers could clip the atom face up and face down and encode binary data, 1s and 0s, into the individual atoms.

Researchers demonstrated their technique by placing two atoms together and encoding with all four possible combinations - 00, 01, 10, 11 - and retrieving them hours later.

Scientists didn't try storing data for longer but they suspect that longer storage will be achievable with a better process or different materials.

"As the atoms are heated we would expect them to start flipping spontaneously. This is because thermal energy being a significant fraction of the energy barrier between the states," Chris Lutz, nanoscience researcher at IBM's research facility, wrote in an email to Techcrunch. "Practical memories will need to increase this barrier by use of several atoms coupled together, or by exploring more innovative use of individual atoms."

While the research is groundbreaking, it is just the first step towards a future where a favorite song or a photo album on an atom. The technique is too expensive when ratcheted up for mass scale and the Holmium atom too delicate for widespread application. Researchers are thinking of looking into molecules rather than single atoms.

"We plan to explore atoms of other elements, clusters of atoms, and small molecules as candidate magnetic bits," Lutz wrote.

The results are published in a paper in the journal Nature.