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Maximizing atomic magnetic memory
A study of the magnetic response of cobalt atoms adsorbed on oxide surfaces may lead to much denser storage of data. In hard drives, data are stored as magnetic bits; the magnetic field pointing up or down corresponds to storing a zero or a one. The smallest bit possible would be a single atom, but the magnetism of a single atom —its spin—has to be stabilized by interactions with heavy elements or surfaces through an effect called spin-orbit coupling. Rau et al. (see the Perspective by Khajetoorians and Wiebe) built a model system in pursuit of single-atom bits—cobalt atoms adsorbed on magnesium oxide. At temperatures approaching absolute zero, the stabilization of the spin's magnetic direction reached the maximum that is theoretically possible.
Designing systems with large magnetic anisotropy is critical to realize nanoscopic magnets. Thus far, the magnetic anisotropy energy per atom in single-molecule magnets and ferromagnetic films remains typically one to two orders of magnitude below the theoretical limit imposed by the atomic spin-orbit interaction. We realized the maximum magnetic anisotropy for a 3d transition metal atom by coordinating a single Co atom to the O site of an MgO(100) surface. Scanning tunneling spectroscopy reveals a record-high zero-field splitting of 58 millielectron volts as well as slow relaxation of the Co atom’s magnetization. This striking behavior originates from the dominating axial ligand field at the O adsorption site, which leads to out-of-plane uniaxial anisotropy while preserving the gas-phase orbital moment of Co, as observed with x-ray magnetic circular dichroism.