The small lab makes for cramped working conditions, but IBM physicist Andreas Heinrich and his four colleagues are working at a tiny scale. While it takes around one million atoms to store digital data today, they have found it can be done with only 12 atoms.
"Why do we do this? Because, of course, if we can make something that really works, it's a revolutionary development," Heinrich said.
Heinrich and his team used an electron microscope to do their research. Portions of it were handmade, with an occasional piece from an aluminum beverage can.
The atoms are inside a tiny chamber and subjected to a temperature of 460 degrees below zero.
"So they hold still and we can see them and watch them from out in the room, and we actually operate this little thing down there," research associate Susanne Baumann said.
They started out with the ambitious goal to see if a single atom could retain the zeroes and ones of digital information. In time, they found the smallest feasible number was 12.
What made it possible was re-arranging clusters of atoms so each atom is adjacent to one of opposite magnetic polarity. They're sitting sort of head to foot, instead of head to head. The technical term is antiferromagnetism.
"We scan this needle along, as the current changes and becomes too large, we pull the tip back and come back down, so the image that we will see from this atom on the surface -- we call it a bump," Heinrich said.
Scaling down from one million to just 12 atoms can lead to much smaller servers, supercomputers and even consumer devices that run on less power.
Packing more storage into a small form is really important. Think about the 1956 prototype made by IBM: the very first hard drive with a capacity of five megabytes. Compare that to the 16 gigabyte iPhone with 3200 times more storage.
Challenges remain, such as the need for the atoms to be at sub-zero temperature.