Many of us use memory sticks and portable hard drives to carry data around with us – they have become a part of every day life and, like all devices, they’re getting smaller and smaller. However researchers at IBM have pushed the envelope and managed to store and retrieve digital data from the world’s smallest storage device – an array that is a mere 12 atoms in size! The breakthrough points the way to a new class of nanomaterials for next-gen memory chips and disk drives that will use less power and have larger capacities.

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Currently, the most advanced magnetic storage systems require about one million atoms to store a digital 1 or 0, but the team’s achievement could see a new breakthrough in quantum computing. In fact, IBM believes the development could lead to an ‘arms race’ where physic labs compete to see who can explore the properties of magnetic materials at the molecular level.

The IBM team reported their innovation in the journal Science. The team, led by Andreas Heinrich at the Almaden Research Center, created their tiny storage device by arranging two rows of six iron atoms on a copper nitride surface. The device hinges upon antiferromagnetism, which occurs when atoms with opposite magnetic orientations are placed close to each other. The initial experiment was done at a temperature of absolute zero, but the team added that if it was done at room temperature, an array could be created with as few as 150 atoms.

So what did the team store and retrieve in their experiments? Well, the team created a computer byte, or character, out of an individually placed array of 96 atoms. They then used the array to encode the I.B.M. motto “Think” by repeatedly programming the memory block to store representations of its five letters. It’s only a byte, but it could be the first step in a computing revolution – we could soon have phones capable of holding 400 TB of data.

“The approach that we used is to jump to the very end, check if we can store information in one atom, and if not one atom, how many do we need?” researcher Sebastian Loth said in a statement to BBC News.