VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – Montreal-based rare earths project developer Matamec Explorations is excited about a breakthrough discovery by a team of nanoscience researchers, mainly from IBM’s Almaden Research Centre, in San Jose, California, of the ability to store one bit (1b) of data on a single holmium atom.
The breakthrough findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature earlier this month.
Holmium, with the atomic number 67, is a heavy rare earth element (REE) that is part of the Lanthanide series of elements. Matamec’s flagship Kipawa rare earths joint venture, which is being developed in partnership with Quebec government investment vehicle Ressources Québec, is one of North America’s most advanced rare earths projects.
The Kipawa deposit features light and heavy REEs, and is enriched in heavy REEs, including holmium. Based on a 2013 feasibility study, the development-stage project is expected to produce on average 31.2 t/y of holmium oxide over the life-of-mine.
“It’s very exciting to hear about this technology breakthrough and to imagine the ramifications for data storage applications,” Matamec president and CEO André Gauthier stated.
“As we continue working with leading universities and research centres on several fronts to explore ways to improve the overall project at Kipawa, knowing that there will most likely be an increase in demand for holmium in the coming years as a result of possibly groundbreaking new applications, certainly is encouraging. Our main objective at Matamec is to develop the Kipawa project to provide a secure North American supply of rare earths, including holmium.”
The Kipawa project has, to date, successfully generated a light and a heavy rare earth concentrate and continues to improve the metallurgical process with research laboratories and universities, mostly in Canada.
The IBM researchers could use a single holmium atom as the “world’s smallest magnet”, and by passing an electrical current through the holmium, they can turn it ‘on’ to a state representing the ‘1’ of the binary code, or ‘off’, which represents the ‘0’ state.
The researchers demonstrated that two magnetic holmium atoms could be switched on or off independently, even when they were separated by just one nanometre – a distance one-millionth the width of a pin head.
With so little space needed to store data, the discovery could lead to the creation of radically smaller hard drives and data storage systems with much greater capacities for storage – about 1 000 times denser than today's hard disk drives and solid state memory chips.
Although it may take time for the various possible commercial applications to come to market, the discovery of the ability to save a single bit of data on a holmium atom represents a quantum leap in data storage technology and offers great potential for computing. An entire computer’s hard drive could possibly be stored in a piece of jewellery or sewn into a garment, for example, and smaller data storage devices could greatly improve the evolving Internet of Things applications, the company advised.