IBM researchers write data onto a single atom in major breakthrough

9 Mar 2017

Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

A new benchmark has been reached in the science of small.

IBM researchers have managed to read and write data on a single atom, the smallest unit of matter that can be manipulated.

The entire electronics industry is pursuing storage and processing at a nano scale, and this IBM breakthrough sets a new bar.

It enables an atom to be adjusted magnetically to form readable patterns, such as ones and zeros.

New patterns at an atomic scale

The IBM feat, published in Nature, beats previous efforts where the smallest individually addressable bistable magnetic bits have consisted of between three and 12 atoms.

It means that IBM is capable of imbuing atoms with a zero or one signature.

In many ways, this could set the world of physics on fire, with new forms of digital storage becoming possible at an atomic scale.

To achieve the breakthrough, the researchers placed a single Holmium atom with unpaired electrons on a bed of magnesium oxide and in a state of magnetic bistability.

Using a tunnelling microscope to apply 150 millivolts at 10 microamps to the atom, it switches its magnetic spin state.

The tiny electrical storm creates a signature of sorts, causing the Holmium atom to behave differently and leaving a lasting, stored, magnetic state that can be detected.

In this way, a zero or a one can be stored on a single atom.


The research team said in their paper: “To demonstrate independent reading and writing, we built an atomic-scale structure with two Ho bits, to which we write the four possible states and which we read out both magnetoresistively and remotely by electron spin resonance.

“The high magnetic stability combined with electrical reading and writing shows that single-atom magnetic memory is indeed possible.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years