Scientists can now magnetically store a byte of data in 96 atoms vs 500,000,000 on your hard drive.

Scientists from IBM and the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science have built the world's smallest magnetic data storage unit. It uses just twelve atoms per bit and squeezes a whole byte into as few as 96 atoms. A modern hard drive, for comparison, still needs more than half a billion atoms per byte.

The nanometer data storage unit was built atom by atom with the help of a scanning tunneling microscope.

The researchers constructed regular patterns of iron atoms, aligning them in rows of six atoms each. Two rows are sufficient to store one bit.

A byte correspondingly consists of eight pairs of atom rows. It uses only an area of 4 by 16 nanometers corresponding to a storage density a hundred times higher than a modern hard drive.

The researchers employed antiferromagnetism where the spins of neighbouring atoms are oppositely aligned, rendering the material magnetically neutral on a bulk level.

Antiferromagnetic atom rows can be spaced much more closely without magnetically interfering with each other. The scientists managed to pack bits only one nanometer apart.

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