New LCN Researcher Studies Magnetic Orientation and Stability of a Single Atom on a Surface

Dr Cyrus Hirjibehedin, who just moved to the London Centre for Nanotechnology from the IBM Almaden Research Center, is part of a team of scientists that has studied the magnetic anisotropy of a single atom on a surface.  This work, which was recently published in the journal Science, has been classified by IBM as a "major breakthrough". For more information please see the original Science article Large Magnetic Anisotropy of a Single Atomic Spin Embedded in a Surface Molecular Network.

An extract from the IBM press release is below. Both the press release and a press kit with high-resolution images are available from the IBM website.

San Jose, Calif. & Zurich, Switzerland - 30 Aug 2007: IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced two major scientific achievements in the field of nanotechnology that could one day lead to new kinds of devices and structures built from a few atoms or molecules.

Although still far from making their way into products, these breakthroughs will enable scientists at IBM and elsewhere to continue driving the field of nanotechnology, the exploration of building structures and devices out of ultra-tiny, atomic-scale components. Such devices might be used as future computer chips, storage devices, sensors and for applications nobody has imagined yet.

The work will be unveiled tomorrow in two reports being published by the journal Science.

In the first report, IBM scientists describe major progress in probing a property called magnetic anisotropy in individual atoms. This fundamental measurement has important technological consequences because it determines an atom’s ability to store information. Previously, nobody had been able to measure the magnetic anisotropy of a single atom.

Image 1: IBM's SINGLE-ATOM STORAGE BUILDING BLOCK: Illustration of the preferred magnetic orientation of an iron atom on a specially prepared copper surface. The ability of an atom to maintain its magnetic orientation can help determine that atom's suitability for storing data. As the atom's magnetic spin points in one direction, it can represent a "1", and in the other direction a "0", telling scientists that single-atoms may be suitable for storing the 1s and 0s known as bits, that enable information storage in computing devices. This represents a potential building block for atomic storage.

With further work it may be possible to build structures consisting of small clusters of atoms, or even individual atoms, that could reliably store magnetic information. Such a storage capability would enable nearly 30,000 feature length movies or the entire contents of YouTube – millions of videos estimated to be more than 1,000 trillion bits of data – to fit in a device the size of an iPod. Perhaps more importantly, the breakthrough could lead to new kinds of structures and devices that are so small they could be applied to entire new fields and disciplines beyond traditional computing.

The Science of The Small: Understanding the Magnetic Properties of Atoms
In the paper titled “Large Magnetic Anisotropy of a Single Atomic Spin Embedded in a Surface Molecular Network,” the researchers used IBM’s special scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to manipulate individual iron atoms and arranged them with atomic precision on a specially prepared copper surface. They then determined the orientation and strength of the magnetic anisotropy of the individual iron atoms.

Anisotropy is an important property for data storage because it determines whether or not a magnet can maintain a specific orientation. This in turn allows the magnet to represent either a “1” or “0,” which is the basis for storing data in computers.

“One of the major challenges for the IT industry today is shrinking the bit size used for data storage to the smallest possible features, while increasing the capacity,” said Gian-Luca Bona, manager of science and technology at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. “We are working at the ultimate edge of what is possible – and we are now one step closer to figuring out how to store data at the atomic level. Understanding the specific magnetic properties of atoms is the cornerstone of progressing toward new, more efficient ways to store data.”

Note to Editors:

Images and broadcast-quality b-roll and interviews are available for download by registered journalists at

A press kit containing animations, additional photos, and video clips is available in the IBM Press Room at

Attached image
Update this image alt text please