The Next Big Thing Will Be Very, Very Small

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 {complink 2657|Intel Corp.} 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. {complink 2470|IBM Corp.} 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.

16 comments on “The Next Big Thing Will Be Very, Very Small

  1. Ariella
    February 2, 2012

    Developments in nanotechnology do have a huge impact on the electronics industry, as well as on the advance of sciences and even textiles.

  2. Houngbo_Hospice
    February 2, 2012

    “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.”

    Mind blowing, indeed. That goes beyond Moore law (at least in theory for now). Such technology will have a huge impact on the safeguard of our natural resources. 

  3. Kevin Jackson
    February 2, 2012

    I'm picturing a personal computing device comprised of a supercomputer the size of a grain of salt attached to a battery the size of a brick.

  4. Bruce Rayner
    February 2, 2012

    As my kids say… LOL

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 2, 2012

    As you point out, something like this could lead to the end of hardware as we know it and the pesky problem of disposing of all that plastic, glass and toxic materials. Make it solar or wind powered and even the battery issue may go away. “Wicked pissah” as we say in New Englnd.

  6. _hm
    February 2, 2012

    Will these take us closer to memory of humane mind? I wish we can soon have expndable memory option for our brain.


  7. Daniel
    February 3, 2012

    Bruce, this research is very valid especially in case of big data era. For most of the companies storage is a major concern and it's like a never ending worry because of more and more datas are creating every day. A better data storage optimization algorithm or similar research in similar direction is required. Hope the outcomes of this research can make a revolutnery change.

  8. Bruce Rayner
    February 3, 2012

    @Jacob – the non-trivial challenge ahead is to transition this amazing accomplishment from the lab to commercialization. It's a huge and daunting task and will be truly revolutionary. But there are lots of steps between now and that point in the future. The potential to reduce energy cost of storage may be one of the drivers behind the pace of that development.

  9. Bruce Rayner
    February 3, 2012

    @_hm. I certainly hope so, I'm in dire need of augementing my memory.   

  10. DataCrunch
    February 3, 2012

    Intel's next generation 3D chips could be the catalyst to overtake ARM's stronghold in the mobile arena.  At least that is what Intel is counting on.

  11. Wale Bakare
    February 5, 2012

    Dave you are right. Technology has established itself as panacea to better economy, social as well as political challenges facing nations' from either developed or developing ones in catching up with modernization. I see Intel as a major player in this field and certainly ahead of others. Am waiting to see how 2D or 3D chips market will be.

  12. Cryptoman
    February 5, 2012

    It is an astonishing progress. However, there is one caveat that we should note here. The stability of this system can only be achieved at -272 degrees C !! It's too cold to do anything in practical terms 🙂

    Joke aside, in theory it all works but creating this environment outside the lab will not be practical and it will be too costly at the moment. Apparently, getting this far has a price tag of $1M not to mention the extraordinary effort put in by dedicated scientists.


  13. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 6, 2012

    With my extrapolation of what the scientists have done in the lab today, and with the green initiative, future may see the tree leaves being used as organic atomic memory storage and we will have Tree-based data centers rather than those clouds.

    Like those ancient age saints, you could just sit under a tree and get the worldly knowledge by just mumbling a few mantra in your mind.

    The day is not far away!

  14. Bruce Rayner
    February 6, 2012

    @Crypoman – yes, too costly and too cold and not practical. That is in 2012. But back in 1980 who would have thought Intel would be making 3D chips using a 32nm process? Maybe we won't see this on the market in 2013, but something like it might emerge one day. Maybe.

  15. Bruce Rayner
    February 6, 2012

    @prabahar – LOL.  those ancient saints were way ahead of their time. 

  16. JADEN
    February 7, 2012

    The next big thing will be very small, this is the power of Technology.

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