File this one under Mind Blowing. Earlier this month IBM Research announced that its scientists had successfully demonstrated the ability to store a bit of information -- that's a 0 or a 1 -- in as few as 12 atoms. Current disk drives use about 1 million atoms for one bit. Combined with other nano-developments such as Intel's tri-gate 3D transistor, this stunning announcement means the steady march toward smaller, faster, and cheaper electronic devices is assured for a few more decades at least. (See: Opportunities in Revolution.)
This research paves the way for storage devices such as disk drives and solid-state memory to be more than 100 times denser than they are today. But perhaps even more important than shrinking the footprint and increasing computational speed is the energy savings. Today's datacenters are estimated to account for something like 1 percent of the world's total energy consumption. Cutting that in half, or more, would be good for the planet.
How did they do it? The researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope to atomically engineer 12 anti-ferromagnetically coupled atoms to store one bit of data by aligning the polarity of the spinning atoms. That was the easy part. The hard part was packing clusters of these 12 atoms close together in such a way that one cluster wouldn't switch the polarity of its neighbors. Applying very low temperatures and precisely controlling the interactions among the bits, the researchers were able to keep the polarity stable. Thus, they proved -- at least in theory -- that it takes only 12 atoms to represent one bit of information.
One implication of this development is that it blows Moore's Law out of the water. Coined by Gordon Moore, an Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) co-founder, the "Law" states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. This doubling since the 1970s has given us the wonders of the modern world, from desktop supercomputers to cellphones.
Over the last 50 years, the chip industry has taken an incremental approach of scaling down the size of transistors and the semiconductors that pack together the transistors. IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has taken the opposite approach and looked at the problem from the perspective of the smallest possible unit that can be individually manipulated to build devices: the lowly atom.
Of course, it will be some time before this research migrates from the lab to product development and emerges on the market as products. But it will happen.
And what will this revolution look like? For starters: a quantum leap in the quantity of data we can store and access. That means more powerful, efficient, and cost-effective storage farms, more powerful servers, and smaller, thinner notepads.
Beyond that, the development has implications for supercomputing, for our ability to solve big, complex problems that require huge amounts of data and computational power. It could revolutionize medical research, give us a deeper understanding of how the climate works, provide every one of the seven billion humans on the planet with a personal cloud... The mind boggles.
OK, so I'm getting ahead of myself. But it's moments like these when the spirit of human ingenuity restores your faith in humanity. When you can step back and put in perspective the huge challenges the modern world faces and actually believe that we'll be able to solve some our biggest challenges. When you can imagine a brighter future for the planet.