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Magnetoelectrics: The next big advance in system memory?

Generally, hardware upgrades arrive incrementally – processors slowly gain more cores, graphics cards slowly become more powerful, and storage devices slowly gain more capacity. Hardware rarely moves forward with a significant leap, jumping from one form to another that is so significantly upgraded that it barely resembles what came before.

These leaps do happen though – in just a matter of a few years dumb (feature) phones evolved into smartphones, and a great deal of laptops become super slim tablets. Now, utilising a new type of magnetoelectric material, computer memory may take that significant leap.

Magnetoelectrics are materials where the magnetic and electric properties are linked together, which means that one property could control the other. For example, the magnetic property could be controlled by zapping it with an electrical signal.

Because of this, a team of physicists at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory performed an experiment to harness and study the effect. The team took a compound of europium-titanium oxide (EuTiO3), which has the titanium atom sitting in the middle of what is essentially an atomic cage of europium and oxygen (see the image at the top of this article).

The physicists compressed the cage using a thin film of the EuTiO3 compound, then hit it with electricity. They found that the titanium moves, which in turn electrically polarises the unit. The end result is that the magnetic order of the unit was changed, thus proving the link between the electric components (the titanium) and the magnetic ones (the europium).

Due to the electric and magnetic link, and the relative ease of control, the new magnetoelectric material can be used in a variety of applications that use magnets and electricity, most notably computer memory. Currently, electric memory provides speed at the cost of robustness, while magnetic memory provides increased capacity at the cost of speed and efficiency.

Interestingly, because of the powerful link between magnetism and electricity held within magnetoelectrics, scientists could theoretically create non-binary memory, removing the need for just the two values of 1 and 0. Creating extra values would open up a whole new line of logic with regards to the way memory works.

As is the common trend for mind blowing advances in storage, magnetoelectrics won’t be put into consumer devices anytime soon, but the test has been a success and the groundwork has been established.

Image Credit: Renee Carlson