The traditional semiconductors that currently rule nearly every area of our digital lives could be replaced in the future by spintronics devices, which read and write data via the "spin" of electrons, rather than switching transistors.
Spintronics has been a common buzzword in predictions for the future of computing, and the process was recently photographed by physicists at the University of Hamburg. However, researchers at Ohio State University have now taken the technology from theory to practice, creating a working spintronics-based memory device.
The device itself is apparently pretty primitive at the moment, being a small magnetic strip layered with a magnet made from ferrous metal, and hooked up to a pair of electrical leads. Nevertheless, the device successfully read and wrote a data pattern, and the results have just been published in the August 2010 edition of Nature Materials.
The project was headed by the university's professor of physics and chemistry, Dr Arthur Epstein, who describes the material as a "hybrid of a semiconductor that is made from organic materials and a special magnetic polymer semiconductor." However, in the future Epstein hopes that all-polymer devices based solely on spintronics could be used in future computers.
"Our main achievement is that we applied this polymer-based magnet semiconductor as a spin polariser," explained researcher Jung-Woo Yoo, "meaning we could save data (spin up and down) on it using a tiny magnetic field - and a spin detector - meaning we could read the data back." According to Yoo, the team are now "closer to constructing a device from all-organic material."
The test itself involved a similar setup to the way in which hard drives read and write bits magnetically. The researchers exposed the material to a magnetic field that varied in strength over time. The university explains that in order to "determine whether the material recorded the magnetic pattern and functioned as a good spin injector/detector, they measured the electric current passing through the two magnetic layers."
According to Yoo, the results were "textbook," with the spintronics device retrieving all of the magnetic data exactly as it was stored.
"We could solve many of the problems facing computers today by using spintronics," says Epstein, adding "we would love to take portable electronics to a spin platform."
The researchers also claim that the move to spintronics wouldn't cause too much trouble for the computer industry. "Any place that makes computer chips could do this," says Yoo, adding that the device was also created at room temperature.