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Physicists are one step closer to developing single-atom data storage devices

Swiss researchers recently published the results of their experiments on magnetizing single atoms of holmium, an article on NanoWerk stated. They reported making significant progress towards the creation of single-atom data storage systems, which can store immense amounts of data in very tiny spaces using atoms.

Every day, the space needed to store data increases by almost 15 million gigabytes. The combination of tried-and-tested magnetic storage devices and their solid state successors are not going to be able to provide enough data storage capacity to meet human needs in the long term.

Researchers are looking into other means of storing data. Some of them are investigating the possibility of using single-atom magnets to store data.

These systems use individual atoms that are adsorbed on a surface. Each atom can store a single bit of information. The data can be written and read using quantum physics.

Being tiny, atoms can be stored in very dense quantities. A storage device that uses single atoms as storage material would, therefore, have the capacity to hold more data than existing means. (Related: REPORT: The U.S. intelligence community wants to use DNA as the next data storage trove.)

Holmium is a potential material for single-atom data storage

Single-atom magnets may have moved out of the pages of science fiction, but they are still stuck in the laboratory phase of research. The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) is one of the institutions working to get it out of the lab.

EPFL researchers are finding ways to overcome the problems of residual magnetism. If successful, they can make it possible to read and write data using single-atom magnets.

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A team from the university’s Institute of Physics recently published their findings on single atom magnets made from the rare-earth element holmium. They used scanning tunneling microscopy to demonstrate the stability of the thermal and magnetic fields of the magnets.

“Single-atom magnets offer an interesting perspective because quantum mechanics may offer shortcuts across their stability barriers that we could exploit in the future,” explained EPFL researcher Fabian Natterer. The first author of the paper, he described their findings as the last step to complete the puzzle of recording data on atoms.

Holmium single-atom magnets can withstand strong magnetic fields, high heat

In their experiment, the EPFL researchers subjected magnetized holmium atoms to high temperatures, powerful magnetic fields, and other factors that would normally disable magnetism. These conditions are common risks encountered by data storage devices.

The response of the atoms to extreme conditions was observed using a scanning tunneling microscope, an instrument that can view the surface of an object at the atomic level.

The researchers reported that the holmium atoms could maintain their magnetism despite exposure to powerful magnetic fields that exceeded eight teslas. For comparison, the magnets used in the Large Hadron Collider to contain all those high-energy particles are around the same level of strength. This level of coercivity was considered to be record-breaking.

In the second half of their experiment, they subjected several holmium single-atom magnets to temperatures that reached up to 45 Kelvin, which translates to -378.67 degrees Fahrenheit. For humans, that is very cold, but single atoms find that temperature to be extremely hot.

Despite the intense heat, the holmium atoms maintained their magnetism up to a temperature of 35 Kelvin (-396.67 degrees F). The atoms only began to align themselves to the applied magnetic field once the temperature reached 45 Kelvin.

“We have demonstrated that the smallest bits can indeed be extremely stable, but next we need to learn how to write information to those bits more effectively to overcome the magnetic ‘trilemma’ of magnetic recording: stability, writability, and signal-to-noise ratio,” concluded Natterrer.

You can find more articles about upcoming data storage technologies at

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