Quicker, cleaner computers are in sight

July 31, 2006

Imagine a computer instantly working when it was turned on because it didn't need power to reload its memory and get it working. Leeds physicists are leading a new £2.3m project to make new materials which would allow computer memory and other components to use magnetism rather than conventional electrical charges, paving the way for smaller, faster gadgets.

Magnetism in microelectronic components - spintronics - is already used for reading high performance hard disks, like those in iPods. A similar device can also store information magnetically on a memory chip, instead of needing an electric charge. Charges leak away and have to be replenished a thousand times a second, but magnetism doesn't require a power supply. It can also be used to control the flow of electrons in a component so a chip could re-configure itself in the most effective way for each calculation it handled.

The consortium is led by Professor Brian Hickey at Leeds and includes Cambridge, Imperial, Durham, Glasgow, Exeter and City universities and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. It will look at new and existing ways of applying spintronics, develop new materials and push the limits of our current understanding of magnetism. The group - Spin@RT - is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is supported by some of the world's biggest hard-drive and electronics manufacturers.

Leeds specialises in making magnetic materials and thanks to £240,000 from the Wolfson Foundation (and £210,000 from the University) they are now using a 'sputter' machine which allows them to fabricate materials in layers with thickness control equivalent to adding or removing a single atom.

Dr Chris Marrows said: "We are in effect spray painting with atoms in the sputter machine. It gives us the control to build materials layer by layer. It's the same process - but much more clean and controlled - which causes thin grey layers of gunk to form at the ends of a fluorescent light bulb."

"The iPod wouldn't have been possible without the high speed drive inside it. In the past, simple coils of wire were used but the individual bits of data are now so tiny that exquisitely sensitive detectors are needed to get the data back."

Unlike the flash memory in digital cameras, spintronic memory can be written to more quickly and won't wear out. Also, it could make computers less power hungry, reducing electricity bills and carbon dioxide emissions.

Dr Marrows added: "Ultimately in the extreme case of operating on the single spin of an electron, spintronics will be an excellent basis for quantum computing."

Source: University of Leeds

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