Breakthrough: Scientists use electron spin to expand computer memory

We've long known that encoding data using electron spin could revolutionize computer performance - and now it's been successfully demonstrated for the first time ever.

Ohio State researchers built a simple device as a test case for the new field they call "spintronics." They took a thin, organic-based magnet and layered it with iron-based magnets, then connected two electrical leads. They then managed to successfully record data on the device and - here's the critical part - retrieve the data simply by controlling electron spin within the magnetic field. That's the first time spintronics has been used to successfully store and retrieve data, but the researchers are confident it won't be the last.

So how does spintronics work? Basically, electrons can be polarized so that they have a particular directional orientation, much like a bar magnet. These orientations are known as spin, and an electron can either be polarized so it's "spin up" or "spin down." Storing data with spin would effectively double the amount of data a computer could store, as two pieces of data could be stored on an electron instead of just one, which is the case with current electronics.

But the advantages of spintronics don't stop there. As data density increases, so too would processing speed. And one of the biggest causes of heat in current circuit boards - the movement of electrons - would be eliminated entirely, which would mean huge energy savings and thus require smaller batteries to do the same amount of computing work.

As researcher Arthur J. Epstein explains, spintronics could revolutionize portable computing:

"We would love to take portable electronics to a spin platform. Think about soldiers in the field who have to carry heavy battery packs, or even civilian 'road warriors' commuting to meetings. If we had a lighter weight spintronic device which operates itself at a lower energy cost, and if we could make it on a flexible polymer display, soldiers and other users could just roll it up and carry it. We see this portable technology as a powerful platform for helping people."

Best of all, the technology is ready for industry, says fellow researcher Jung-Woo Yoo:

"Any place that makes computer chips could do this. Plus, in this case, we made the device at room temperature, and the process is very eco-friendly."

[Nature Materials]