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Physicists photograph spintronics in action

Spintronics is a word often touted by silicon soothsayers as the future of computing, but it’s a phenomenon that until now hasn’t even been photographed in action. However, physicists at the University of Hamburg have now successfully snapped the spin in action, revealing that we may be able to observe and manipulate it.

The details of the experiment have just been published in a paper by Nature Nanotechnology, and the university has also released a photo showing the spin in action. In order to see the spin, the researchers had to build a customised microscope, which had an iron-coated tip to probe cobalt atoms on a plate of manganese.

“Through scanning tunneling microscopy,” says the university, “the team repositioned individual cobalt atoms on a surface that changed the direction of the electrons’ spin.” As you can see in the picture below, the spin can be seen in the size and shape of the protrusions. A single protrusion shows an upward spin, while double protrusions of equal height show a downward spin.

The paper’s lead author, Andre Kubetzka, said, “the combination of atom manipulation and spin sensitivity gives a new perspective of constructing atomic-scale structures and investigating their magnetic properties.” This new perspective, says the university, “may impact future development of nanoscale magnetic storage, quantum computers and spintronic devices.”

In case you’re not familiar with your quantum computing jargon, spintronics offers a way of storing binary data without necessarily using charge to send a signal to a transistor. Instead, a transistor using spintronics takes its signal from the spin of an electron - whether it’s up or down.

The spin itself is a quantum mechanical property of electrons, and it potentially has a lot of advantages when it comes to the CMOS industry. In particular, devices based on spintronics are expected to give off much less heat and dissipate less power than charged transistors.

Although spintronics is already used in the GMR heads in mechanical hard drives, it’s still going to be a long time before we see it in standard processors. Back in 2008, Intel said that spintronics was at least ten years away when it came to CPUs.

We’re undoubtedly still looking at a long time before spintronics becomes mainstream in processors, and the University’s experiments haven’t yet been conducted at room temperature either. However, this is still a great bit of progress, and it’s brilliant to see what spintronics actually looks like in action.