World’s Smallest Magnet-IBM Stores Data on A Single Atom

IBM researcher Christopher Lutz ispecting the microscope. Image credits:IBM/Stan Olszewski

With over 3 decades of research in Nanotechnology, IBM has consistently pushed the barriers of fundamental science. Recently, a team at IBM Research – Almaden in San Jose, California successfully managed to store data on a single atom creating the world’s smallest magnet. This opens up a plethora of applications which would be realized as time goes by.


How small is the magnet you ask? Compared to an average refrigerator magnet, the world’s smallest magnet is atleast 10 million times smaller. A single Holmium (rare earth element) atom was carefully attached to a magnesium oxide surface.

The choice of the surface was critical to keep the polarity stable. The two poles of the magnet behave as ‘off’ and ‘on’ states which can be used to store information like in a hard disk.

world's smallest magnet
Topographical view of a Holmium atom as observed by IBM’s Nobel Prize winning microscope. The team was successful in encoding data on a single atom making the world’s smallest magnet. Image credits: IBM Research/Stan Olswekski

Information on a computer is processed in bits. A bit can be either 0 (off) or 1(on). A series of 0’s and 1’s make up every piece of data. To store data on a hard drive, a computer has to encode (program) the same series of 0s and 1s on electrical cells.

Conventionally, to store a single bit of information, an average hard drive requires about 100,000 atoms.

Magnetic bits lie at the heart of hard-disk drives, tape, and next-generation magnetic memory,” Christopher Lutz, nanoscience researcher at IBM’s Almaden lab, said in a release. We conducted this research to understand what happens when you shrink technology down to the most fundamental extreme—the atomic scale.

Single atom magnets can be encoded in a unique magnetic state (which translates to 0 or 1). This development brings the possibility for making significantly smaller and denser storage devices.


The Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) was developed at IBM in the late 70s-early 80s. The microscope uses an atomically sharp tip to manipulate individual atoms. The breakthrough technology brought its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the Nobel prize for Physics in 1986.

Video credits: IBM Research

In order to write information on a single atom, an electric impulse was passed through the Holmium atom which flipped its magnetic state. Furthermore, the tip is sensitive enough to sense the nature of flipping which allowed the researchers to assign values of 0 or 1 to either magnetic state. This way IBM managed to read and write data (1 or 0) on a single atom.

It doesn’t get any smaller than a single atom. This is the ultimate storage feat — one bit on one magnetic atom. We’re excited about the potential for dramatically different storage that’s more compact and robust than anything we’ve previously seen,” says Andreas Heinrich, former IBM Research scientist.

The research may be fundamental in nature but it has the potential to revolutionize data storage in future. However, many estimate that it will be years before this technology becomes commercially viable.

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Video credits: IBM Research

Read the original scientific article published in Nature.

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Source Nature IBM

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