Single-atom magnet breakthrough could create tiny hard drives

15 Apr 2016

The future of data storage could be miniaturised to the point of being almost invisible following the breakthrough development by a team of Swiss researchers of a magnet comprised of just one atom.

While a single-atom magnet is unlikely to be of much use as a holder for notes on your fridge, the implications for future data storage could be potentially revolutionary.

While many varied future methods of storing data have been proposed, including information being placed on glass, current hard drives store data magnetically.

With devices becoming smaller and smaller, however, an issue is beginning to catch up with manufacturers, who are realising that the need to create smaller and smaller magnets is becoming more urgent.

A cool achievement

The only problem is that, based on current technology, achieving a ‘magnetic resonance’ – the point at which a magnet is capable of remaining magnetised – at an atomic level has proven incredibly difficult due to environmental fluctuations that can flip magnetic fields.

Now, however, a team of researchers from ETH Zurich and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland has said it has cracked the problem with its first replicable single-atom magnet.

This would mark the first time that a team of researchers has been able to create a relatively stable magnet on an atomic level, albeit at the rather cold temperature of -233.15ºC.

By placing single holmium atoms on ultra-thin films of magnesium oxide, which were previously grown on a surface of silver, the team’s method allowed for the formation of single-atom magnets with considerable robustness.

Prior to this breakthrough from the team led by Harald Brune, the previous record for a magnet that had shown resonance was between three and 12 atoms in size.

Miniature magnets image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic