UNL researchers work on “spintronics”

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February 2nd, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are discovering new techniques that could revolutionize data storage on everything from desktop computers to mobile devices, making them smaller, faster and more powerful.

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It would be fair to say UNL assistant professor, physicist and researcher Christian Binek has spent a lot of time in his lab. For the past several years, he has worked almost exclusively in the field of something called “spintronics.”

The goal for Binek (right) and fellow UNL researcher Peter Dowben (left) has been to create something that allows more data storage, less energy usage, and the creation of smaller, more powerful electronic devices. (Photo by Ben Bohall)

“Roughly speaking,” Binek said, “it is the attempt to use a property of the electrons, which is not used so far in conventional electronic circuitry, and that is the spin of an electron.”

Electronic devices have relied upon an electric current to store and process information, but the downside of this technology is that those currents generate heat, and therefore limit the number of transistors inside an electronic chip. Those currents have also used energy that inevitably reduces battery life.

The goal for Binek and fellow UNL researcher Peter Dowben has been to create something that allows more data storage, less energy usage and the creation of smaller, more powerful electronic devices.

Chromia, the oxide form of chromium, comes into contact with a ferromagnet and applies voltage. The result is a switch of the ferromagnet's magnetization. (Photo by Ben Bohall)

“How can I avoid the flow of electric currents, because that always comes with dissipation, energy losses and heat production,” he said. “How can I avoid that, and yet use spintronic types of effect to switch certain magnetic states which can carry and store information? That’s a big part of our project: to electrically control, manipulate and switch magnetically stored information.”

Ultimately, spintronics could change the face of the technology we use every day – computers, cell phones, mobile devices, you name it.

What was the conclusion of all that research?

“You can do it,” Dowben said with a laugh.

Xi He is a graduate student of Binek. He has done hands-on work involving the team's research. (Photo by Ben Bohall)

Xi He is a graduate student of Binek’s, helping with hands-on work involving the team’s research. He brought a thin film of chromia, the oxide form of chromium, into contact with a ferromagnet and applies voltage. The result has been a switch of the ferromagnet’s magnetization.

“That atomic layer is ferromagnets, and we can control it in a very special way,” he explained. “So we use electric field to control instead of a magnetic field, so you don’t have any current going on. So you actually have zero current storage. And it involves atomic layers, so you can stack it up very densely, so we can do very nice computing and storing with the new stuff we found.”

Breakthroughs in science and technology like this one by Binek and his team have opened the door for the future of data storage. But it also raises questions about how long these discoveries will take to work their way from a university lab to the palm of a consumer’s hands.

“I would hate to guess, because any guess I would make would be certainly wrong,” Dowben said.

Added Binek,”It takes breakthroughs here and there, and some are made. From our perspective, we would say we’re just at the beginning.”

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