This sounds impossible, but here it is:
“Scientists from IBM Research have successfully demonstrated the ability to store information in as few as 12 magnetic atoms,” the company says.
Essentially, as Wired says, they created “the world’s smallest magnetic storage device.” And according to Computer World, “the breakthrough may someday allow data storage hardware manufacturers to produce products with capacities that are orders of magnitude greater than today’s hard disk and flash drives.”
Before this, it took at least 1 million atoms to store a bit of data. “For those keeping score at home,” writes CNET, “IBM’s discovery could mean storage could one day be possible at 1/83,000th the scale of today’s disk drives.”
In the company’s statement about the discovery, IBM lead investigator Andreas Heinrich says:
“The chip industry will continue its pursuit of incremental scaling in semiconductor technology but, as components continue to shrink, the march continues to the inevitable end point: the atom. We’re taking the opposite approach and starting with the smallest unit — single atoms — to build computing devices one atom at a time.”
Heinrich explains more in this video.
As for how this will all play out, Wired writes that:
“What’s keeping the atom-scale flash drive from showing up at your local Best Buy? Well, first off, they operate at 1 degree kelvin. That’s about -458 Fahrenheit. Bump things up to room temperature and Heinrich thinks it would take about 150 atoms per bit.
“And there’s an even bigger problem. Nobody has a clue how to build something this small outside of the lab. And certainly, nobody can do it cheaply, Heinrich says. ‘That is something that many people are working on, but nobody has solved it yet.’ “