IBM's Computing Breakthrough Promises Chips The Size Of Dust

IBM's new techniques may well lead to the use of atoms for digital storage, which could store the entire contents of YouTube -- about 1,000 trillion bits of data.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

August 30, 2007

3 Min Read

IBM on Thursday announced two major breakthroughs in nanotechnology that could increase computers' data storage capacity by a factor of 1,000 and decrease the size of computer chips to no larger than a speck of dust.

"On your iPod, if this were turned into a product, it could store about 1,000 times more information," said IBM scientist Cyrus Hirjibehedin. IBM estimates that such a device could store the entire contents of YouTube, about 1,000 trillion bits of data.

The state of the art for data density today is about 200 to 300 gbits per square inch. A gigabit equals 1 billion bits.

Photo: IBM

What Hirjibehedin and his colleagues -- Chiung-Yuan Lin, Alexander F. Otte, Markus Ternes, Christopher P. Lutz, Barbara A. Jones, and Andreas J. Heinrich -- have discovered is a technique that could lead to the use of atoms for digital storage.

Hirjibehedin said that commercial products based on the research could appear in a decade but cautioned that any such estimate was difficult. "The engineering challenge is really a big unknown," he said.

In the paper entitled "Large Magnetic Anisotropy of a Single Atomic Spin Embedded in a Surface Molecular Network," the scientists describe how they used a special scanning tunneling microscope that operates at half a degree above absolute zero to measure the orientation and strength of the magnetic anisotropy of single iron atoms.

Anisotropy is a property that determines "how happy an atom is to point in a certain direction," explained Heinrich.

Previously, such measurements were averaged over millions of atoms. But assessing individual atoms has an advantage: Atoms that can maintain a specific orientation can be used to represent a "1" or a "0" and thus can be used for storing digital information.

"One of the long term goals in the group that we're in is to actually be able to store information in an atom," said Heinrich. "What we've done now is taken a step toward that."

IBM's second breakthrough comes out of its research lab in Zurich, Switzerland, where scientists have developed a molecular switch that can change state without disrupting the molecule's outer shell.

In theory, this will allow molecular switches to be connected to, and networked with, other molecules. The discovery paves the way for modular molecular logic components that could eventually replace silicon-based CMOS chip technology. Much work needs to be done, however, before computer chips get that small.

"Both of these works are really advances in the nanoscale science that we're interested in," explained Hirjibehedin. "I believe that these are both steps toward making practical devices."

The Zurich team made its discovery by accident while studying molecular vibrations, which are significant for nanoscale devices.

"One of the beauties of doing exploratory science is that by researching one area, you sometimes stumble upon other areas of major significance," said Gerhard Meyer, senior researcher in the nanoscale science group at the IBM Zurich lab, in a statement. "Although the discovery of this breakthrough was accidental, it may prove to be significant for building the computers of the future."

The two research papers are scheduled to appear on Friday in the journal Science.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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