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A view from IBM Research's Nobel prize-winning microscope of a single atom of Holmium, an rare earth element used as a magnet to store one bit of data. Scientists used its scanning tunneling microscope to demonstrate technology that could someday store all 35 million songs on iTunes library on the area of a credit card. (Stan Olswekski for IBM)

IBM scientists have shrunk one bit of data onto the world’s smallest magnet, consisting of a single encoded atom.

The breakthrough could allow magnetic data storage a boggling 1,000 times denser than the possibility of current solid-state memory chips and hard disks, the scientists said, in a paper unveiling the work in the journal Nature.

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

The data was stored on holmium atoms, which were written and read using electrical currents.

The two magnetic atoms could be read independently, despite being separated by just a single nanometer, the scientists reported.

Such hyper-detailed work was accomplished using a scanning tunneling microscope, an IBM invention that won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics. The telescope operates in an extreme vacuum to avoid contamination by air and other potentially unwanted molecules.

The technology, when and if fully realized, would allow the entire iTunes library of more than 35 million songs to be stored on a device the size of a credit card, according to a company statement on the innovation.

IBM independently announced it would start building the world’s first commercial quantum computers for business and science purposes earlier this week.

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