Spintronic memory gets a breakthrough

Researchers have sussed out how to use the spin of an electron to hold information

An international group of researchers has figured out how to encode information within the spin of an electron, a technique that may one day lead to smaller, faster memory for computers.

While the idea, called Spintronics, has been investigated for well over a decade, the researchers assert their work as a breakthrough, for a number of reasons.

First, the information stays encoded for 100 seconds, a longevity previously not achieved in spintronics prototypes. Also, their approach allows the data to be encoded on phosphorus atoms, allowing data to be easily read and updated by silicon-based equipment, the kind used by today's computers.

The researchers -- from Florida State University, the University of Utah, University College London and the University of Sydney -- have published their findings in the latest issue of Science.

Using equipment from Florida State University's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, the researchers were able to control the magnetic character, or spin, of electrons and their nuclei they orbit. They used powerful magnetic fields to direct the spin and cold temperatures to quell the motion of the atoms.

“Finding a system compatible with silicon, the main material used in the semiconductor industry, is particularly useful as it has the potential to be incorporated into existing technology,” said Dane McCamey, one of the project's investigators, in a statement. “We could then integrate spin-based information storage and processing devices onto a single chip.”

Despite this step forward, don't expect devices to come with a sticker that reads "Spintronics Inside" anytime soon. In order to minimize the movement of the atoms, the device had to be cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero. The surrounding magnetic fields had to be 200,000 times stronger than the Earth's own pull.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, the state of Florida, the Australian Research Council, Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, a British funding agency.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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