There are many reasons why we still have size limitations on technology, but when it comes to data storage, one thing really stands out. You can only squeeze particles so close together before they start bumping into each other and screwing up the data. That's all about to change.
Scientists have finally created a long-theorised particle called the skyrmion. The best way to imagine a skyrmion is to think of a magnetic field that resembles a twisted vortex of atoms. In a normal particle, the charges of the atoms all line up in the same direction, but in a skyrmion, they're arranged in these little twister shapes that also happen to be quite stable. You can move them around and shake them up, but they won't come untwisted.
This is where they come in handy for data storage. Information is burned onto a hard disk by turning the magnetic north poles of normal clusters of atoms up or down to denote a "one" or a "zero," a digital bit. But if you push these particles too closely together, the magnetic fields begin to interfere with each other and scramble the data. This doesn't happen with skyrmions. Because of that unique vortex shape, you can squeeze the particles super close together, and the magnetic state of each bit will remain stable.
The really exciting news is that scientists think that they can make devices like optical hard drives up to 20 per cent smaller using this technique. The bad news is that we're a ways away from making such devices. The idea of skyrmions has been around since the 1960s, but only in this latest study have scientists proven that they were able to actually use them to write data. Even then, they were only able to do it about 60 per cent of the time.
But you know what? We used to burn data onto CDs that used to skip, like, 80 per cent of the time, and look at us now. You probably can't even remember the last time you heard something skip. [Science via Nature]