Armonk, NY, USA: IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced it has created the world’s smallest magnet using a single atom – and stored one bit of data on it. Currently, hard disk drives use about 100,000 atoms to store a single bit. The ability to read and write one bit on one atom creates new possibilities for developing significantly smaller and denser storage devices, that could someday, for example, enable storing the entire iTunes library of 35 million songs on a device the size of a credit card.

Today’s breakthrough builds on 35 years of nanotechnology history at IBM, including the invention of the Nobel prize-winning scanning tunnelling microscope. Earlier this week, IBM announced it will be building the world’s first commercial quantum computers for business and science. Future scanning tunnelling microscope studies will investigate the potential of performing quantum information processing using individual magnetic atoms.

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

the IBM scientists used a scanning the tunnelling microscope (STM), an IBM invention that won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics, to build and measure isolated single-atom bits using the holmium atoms. The custom microscope operates in extreme vacuum conditions to eliminate interference by air molecules and other contamination. The microscope also uses liquid helium for cooling that allows the atoms to retain their magnetic orientations long enough to be written and read reliably.