Single-atom magnet developed by Swiss scientists in major computing discovery

The tiny magnet is the most stable ever created

Doug Bolton@DougieBolton
Thursday 14 April 2016 19:49
comments
The tiny magnet only remains stable at extremely low temperatures
The tiny magnet only remains stable at extremely low temperatures

Scientists have successfully created the world's smallest magnet - it's a single atom, and it could be an integral part of computers in the future.

The one-atom magnet was made by a team of researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, and it's believed to be the most stable version ever created.

Magnetic storage devices like hard drives and SD cards are a part of everyday life - but as computers get smaller, so too must their storage systems.

It's difficult to find something smaller than an atom, so creating these rare magnets is seen as a vital step towards the creation of microscopic, futuristic computers.

The team's discovery is notable because magnets this small are hard to keep magnetised, meaning they wouldn't be able to hold anything for very long if they were used in data storage devices.

Using a pioneering technique, EFPL's Harald Brune and his team got around this problem by placing atoms of the rare-earth element holmium on thin films of magnesium oxide. Using this method, atom-sized magnets which actually hold on to their magnetism can be created, since holmium's electron structure prevents the magnetic field from being disturbed.

At this stage, the magnet is just a prototype - creating it is incredibly difficult and time-consuming, and it only remains stable at temperatures of around -233°C.

However, it's a major breakthrough which could change the way we use computers in the future.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments