Researchers at Trinity College Dublin have made an important breakthrough on the problem of how to efficiently store the world’s ever growing data.

Around 5.5 million devices are added to the internet every year, and the incoming data is growing at an alarming rate. The information is being saved in huge data centers, but what will we do when the storage space runs out?

The two major problems are storage density and data transfer rates, the Irish Times reports.

Because data is stored using technology based on magnets, the answer to the problem lies in developing new kinds of magnets that can store more data and move the data at higher speeds.

The team at Trinity’s Amber nanotechnology research center has made a discovery that can do just that.

Prof Michael Coey is an expert in magnetism and magnetic material and is one of the leading researchers behind the work.

“I have studied magnetism for 50 years and I love it,” he says. “It keeps coming up as a subject, and there is always something new.”

The device under development would use individual electrons as memory units so that extremely large amounts of data could be held in a very small space. Each electron would act like a tiny permanent magnet. 

“Conventional electronics forgot the electron was a magnet,” says Prof Coey. “It was only when people started looking at magnetic-field effects on electrical conductivity that they began to take account of an electron being a tiny magnet.”

The team’s discovery uses an effect called “spin-orbit torque”, but it is based on the use of their new magnetic material. 

“We found a new material that doesn’t produce a magnetic field but behaves inside like a ferromagnetic material,” he says.

The researchers developed a stack of five metal layers, with each layer is just a few nanometres thick.  The lower layer is the only one that stores data but it does so at very high densities and it allows for high-speed magnetic switching 100 times faster than current systems.

“We believe we can make a chip-to-chip transmitter receiver so data rates rise, and we will remove one of the roadblocks,” says Prof Coey

“These are ideas, hopes, possibilities, but [we are] not yet there,” he says. 

The Irish Times reports that the researchers plan to demonstrate a full memory cell using their new magnetic alloy. 

Because their device can run on less electricity, the cost of running large data centers would be greatly reduced, and more data could be stored in a given space compared with the hard drives used today.

The researchers believe their device could sustain the information revolution for another 25 years.

The journal Nature Nanotechnology will publish details of the research this month.