IBM squeezes computers to atomic scale

Ready to carry 30,000 movies on a device the size of an iPod?

Published August 31, 2007 10:59PM (EDT)

Researchers at IBM report in the journal Science this week that they've managed to build a computer storage medium by measuring the magnetic properties of individual atoms, an advance that could lead to storage devices of enormous density -- an iPod that can hold 30,000 movies, say. A second set of IBM scientists succeeded in building processing switches -- transistors, essentially -- out of hydrogen atoms.

The first breakthrough involves what researchers call the magnetic "spin" of atoms. By changing and then measuring the spin, researchers can effectively store data in an atom. That's the task that IBM scientists in San Jose, Calif., accomplished -- they used a scanning tunneling microscope to arrange (that is, to "write") and to subsequently "read" iron and manganese atoms that were spread along a copper surface.

Scientists at an IBM facility in Zurich, meanwhile, arranged two hydrogen atoms between an insulating film and were able to switch them "off" and "on," replicating the behavior of switches that turn electricity on and off in a computer chip. The researchers are looking into ways to link these switches into a circuit, thereby creating a molecular processor.

[See this report and this report in Science (subscription required); via The New York Times and Scientific American.]

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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