Summary:

Computer and memory chips usually tend to get smaller over time, but in a paper published Thursday in Science, IBM details how it’s building memory chips that would be 100 times more dense than today’s hard drives by starting with the smallest building blocks: atoms.

IBM's new memory storing the letters for the word THINK.

IBM's new memory storing the letters for the word THINK.

Computer and memory chips usually tend to get smaller over time, but a paper published Thursday in Science, IBM details how it’s building memory chips that would be 100 times more dense than today’s hard drives by starting with the smallest building blocks: atoms. Big Blue’s prototype chip is only 12 atoms across (click here for an awesome visualization of how small an atom is. No really, click it!) but is another way of thinking about ways to get beyond the limits of building ever-smaller chips keeping Moore’s Law on track.

Andreas Heinrich, the project lead for IBMs efforts, explained in an interview that this tech may never be realized in part because it requires an entirely new type of manufacturing equipment to be built. However, IBM is learning how to manipulate atoms for storing bits and identified a new type of magnetism that could one day be used. Unlike the type of magnetism that keeps your magnets stuck to your fridge, IBM is looking at the reverse of those properties to make this highly dense type of memory.

It’s called antiferromagnetism, and the benefits of using it are not only its density, but that data wouldn’t be lost if it encountered a magnet. IBM is also playing with memory made using traditional magnets, but unfortunately at the atomic level nearby magnets tend to disrupt one another making it difficult to use them close together to store data. Applying antiferromagnetism prevents this and enables researchers to build smaller structures. Heinrich notes that the 12-atom memory chip prototype was only possible in a very low temperature environment, and to make a stable prototype in a room-temperature environment ,it would take a device that’s 150-atoms thick.

So clearly, these aren’t ready for prime time in a hot data center anytime soon. I kid, but the real value of the research here is that there are folks out there continuing to try to advance computing not just for tomorrow but for decades down the line. When your future mobile phone packs a terabyte of storage, it may be Heinrich and IBM you should thank. For more info, check out IBM’s video below.

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