Researchers demonstrate new way to control nonvolatile magnetic memory devices

May 07, 2012 By Anne Ju

(Phys.org) -- Cornell researchers have demonstrated a new strategy for making energy- efficient, reliable nonvolatile magnetic memory devices -- which retain information without electric power.

Reported online in the journal Science May 3, the researchers use a called the spin Hall effect, that turns out to be useful for memory applications because it can switch back and forth -- the basic mechanism needed to make magnet-based .

The Cornell researchers discovered that the spin Hall effect in the metal tantalum can be twice as strong as in any material investigated previously, and it can provide an efficient new way to manipulate . The Cornell device could give the leading nonvolatile magnetic , called the magnetic tunnel junction, a run for its money.

"The spin Hall effect is interesting because it's a bit of physics people haven't paid all that much attention to using in applications," said Dan Ralph, the Horace White Professor of Physics, member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science and the paper's senior co-author with Robert A. Buhrman, the J.E. Sweet Professor of Engineering.

The spin Hall effect works like this: In a heavy metal like tantalum, electrons with intrinsic spins pointing at different angles (electrons, in , spin like a top) are deflected sideways in different directions. Consequently, a charge current produces a net-sideways flow of spins. This spin current can be absorbed by an adjacent magnetic layer, applying a torque to flip the . The magnet stays in place even when no current flows, making the memory nonvolatile.

Currently, the leading technology for developing nonvolatile magnetic memory devices is the magnetic tunnel junction, which consists of two magnetic layers sandwiching a thin barrier. When an electrical current passes perpendicular to the layers of a , one magnetic layer polarizes the electrons, acting as a filter to produce a spin-polarized current. The next layer can absorb this spin current and receive a torque to flip the magnet.

A disadvantage to magnetic tunnels junctions is that the same current path is used for both reading and writing information, making it difficult to pass enough current through the device to achieve magnetic switching without occasionally damaging the barrier layer, Ralph said. The Cornell researchers' new design uses different pathways for the reading and writing, which is slightly less space efficient, but with as good or better results for switching efficiency and overall reliability.

The paper's co-authors are graduate students Luqiao Liu, Chi-Feng Pai, Y. Li and H.W. Tseng.

Explore further: New microscope collects dynamic images of the molecules that animate life

More information: Science publication: www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6081/555.short
Arxiv pre-print: arxiv.org/abs/1203.2875

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antialias_physorg
not rated yet May 07, 2012
Pretty neat. Nonvolatile and fastswitching memory all rolled into one.

But I'd like to see this statement qualified:
electrons, in quantum mechanics, spin like a top

Electrons have a spin. But that quantummechanical spin should NOT be compared to a spinning top (even though it has the same units it is not a measure of angular momentum). Electron spin has a number of very different properties from what would classically called 'spin'.