IBM Research is detailing its quest to find the smallest number of atoms required to store a bit, the fundamental unit of digital data. The answer is just 12, IBM says — a pretty remarkable stat considering that memory in today's PCs has around a million atoms per bit (by our rough calculations, that's nearly 69 quadrillion atoms for an 8GB machine). By aligning the atoms in two offset rows of six with alternating magnetic orientation, IBM figured out that it could isolate the bit so that it wouldn't magnetically interfere with the bits around it.
The company notes that Moore's Law — the longstanding phenomenon dictating that transistor count will double on integrated circuits every two years — is in danger of falling apart as chipmakers start to reach the physical limits of how small transistors can be fabricated. To keep it going, a fundamentally different approach is needed, and assembling memory from individual atoms definitely qualifies as "different." The long-term goal is to produce much denser storage than you can buy today: it's 417 times denser than traditional DRAM and some 10,000 times denser than SRAM, which means you'd have no problem dropping several terabytes of memory and cache into your computer of tomorrow, though there's no word yet on just how long that'll take to materialize.