IBM scientists Andreas Heinrich and Sebastian Loth will tell you it takes a big machine to study small matters of great importance. They are using a highly refined scanning tunneling microscope to study the behavior of atoms.
"Single atoms are the smallest thing you are going to do engineering with and so our mission is to find out how you can do computation and data storage starting from single atoms," Heinrich said.
Heinrich and Loth are part of a team that has developed a breakthrough technique just published in the journal Science. They now have the ability to record the behavior inside atoms spinning at incredible speeds. That has unlocked the mystery of how long information stays in a single atom.
"For one iron atom it is roughly one nanosecond and you can't do much in one nanosecond because it is a billionth of a second; it is an unimaginably small number," Loth said.
Their particular scanning tunneling microscope can also move atoms. The researchers use a model to illustrate what happens when they manipulate the red iron atom.
"Just by placing another atom that is not even magnetic next to it, we increase the data retention time by a factor of 200," Loth said.
The IBM team is envisioning data storage that sounds like science fiction. But it is important to keep in mind that a memory stick can now hold 1,000 times more information than a refrigerator-sized hard drive did when it was invented in 1956.
The implications of the IBM research range from an exponential increase in the number of songs and movies on an iPod to a quantum leap in solar technology.
"In the end what we scientists can do is create tools and create prototypes that may eventually end up in products," Heinrich said.
Heinrich has been working on the project for 12 years. While this breakthrough gives people a glimpse at what is possible in atom storage, the journey will be measured not in years, but decades.