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Breakthrough for the computer of tomorrow?


For the first time a material now exists that is not only a semiconductor but also exhibits exploitable magnetic properties at room temperature. Researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, have taken the lead in an international race to find the technology of tomorrow.

Today’s computers process information using semiconductor chips and store it on magnetic discs. Tomorrow’s technology may mean that these parts merge into a single chip. This is based on the so-called ‘spin’ of electrons. Electron spin generates magnetic fields. Magnetism in iron and other magnetic materials comes from this phenomenon. This spin has a specific direction, and this direction can be exploited as a carrier of information, as ones and zeroes, when you have the equipment to influence and read the spin direction. This technology is believed to be capable of replacing a great deal of today’s electronics, and it is therefore called ‘spintronics.’

Researchers from around the world, both in industry and at universities, have been seeking to create the ‘spin transistor’ for a few years now. It has been created in labs, but only at extremely low temperatures. As recently as last winter, the temperature -100 C was hailed as a milestone in this research (Scientific American, March 2003).

Now a team consisting of experimentalists from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, with the aid of theoreticians from KTH and Uppsala University, have found a substance, zinc oxide with a manganese additive, that makes the spin transistor possible at room temperature, and therefore feasible for mass production.

“Our discovery is not a milestone, it’s a breakthrough,” says Professor Venkat Rao at KTH Materials Science.

What does this mean? Can controlling a spinning electron really change so much? Yes, whoever harnesses the infinitesimal controls the ballgame. It is impossible to predict precisely what practical consequences this will have in the form of new technology, but if the material withstands the test of production, there is tremendous potential for producing much smaller and faster computers, perhaps even so-called quantum computers.

The finding is a door-opener. There are myriad paths to follow. The article is being published and is one of the cover headlines in the October issue of Nature Materials.

Jacob Seth Fransson | alfa
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