Spintronics Could Lead to Advances in Storage, Multimedia

Spintronics might sound like the name of a long-lost ’80s pop band, but it’s actually a scientific field that may someday lead to more compact and useful mobile devices.

As devices get smaller and storage needs grow, researchers are eagerly looking for new ways to pack multiple gigabytes of data into increasingly tinier spaces. One potential solution, proposed by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California, takes data storage down to a new level by using the orientation of spinning electrons to store data.

Scientists have long known that they could use individual electrons to store data by altering which way they twirl. In other words, an electron spinning one way could represent an "on" bit, while an electron spinning another way might represent an "off" bit. Researchers Jeremy Levy, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Pittsburgh, and David Awschalom, a professor of physics at California, have brought electron-based storage a step closer to reality by showing that spin orientation can be controlled using electrical fields rather than magnetic fields.

The researchers, using a specially engineered semiconductor flanked by a pair of metal plates, found they could change electron spin orientation simply by applying microwave electrical signals to the plates. The discovery is important because it’s compatible with conventional computer circuitry.

Although Levy and Awschalom’s finding is tantalizing, it isn’t likely to lead to any immediate breakthroughs in storage technology. That’s because other spintronics research areas—including spin generation and measurement—must be addressed before electron spin-based storage can become practical. "We have made progress on the processing component, but there’s still much left to do in the other realms," says Levy.

In any event, Levy is confident the research will eventually pay off. "The most likely outcome is that our discovery will form the basis of a new technology based on spintronics."

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