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Scientists make single-atom magnet breakthrough

In this illustration, each of the blue spheres is an atomic-sized cobalt magnet, on a thin magnesium oxide surface Illustration: Fabio Donati/EPFL

Scientists at Switzerland’s Federal Institutes of Technology, together with specialists from IBM, have created a magnet from a single atom – and managed to keep it stable enough for use in a host of technological innovations.

The magnets created in the lab are made up of a single cobalt atom on an ultra-thin magnesium oxide surface. Scientists found that the combination of the cobalt with the magnesium oxide made the magnet three times stronger than if it were made of pure cobalt, requiring 1,000 times more energy to reverse its polarity.

“We have now shown that it is possible to create relatively stable magnetic components out of single atoms; i.e. the smallest possible structure,” says Pietro Gambardella, professor of Magnetism and Interface Physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Single-atom magnets used in technology must remain very stable in the face of outside influences, something that’s been very difficult to achieve to this point.

Such magnets are especially needed for a certain type of storage media that can store information permanently without always needing to refresh the data.

That technology, known as MRAM – Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory – is currently only used in certain specialised systems like aircraft and satellite control. However, it is also being developed for wider use in personal computers.

The single-atom magnet study was published in the journal Science.

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