Magnetic microchip signals new direction in computing

Durham University scientists have successfully carried out a basic computer operation using a magnetic microchip – a major step along the way to establishing a new generation of electronics and computer technology.

They are working in the rapidly growing field of nanotechnology, harnessing the magnetic properties of electrons, rather than their electrical charge on which conventional electronics is based. Magnetic microchips could, in the future, offer a range of benefits over standard chips in terms of size, cost, flexibility, stability and energy efficiency.

Magnetic methods of storing information have already been demonstrated. Now, in the Department of Physics at Durham, Dr Dan Allwood, Dr Russell Cowburn, and the rest of Dr Cowburn’s team have taken the next key step of using a magnetic chip to perform one of the most fundamental tasks on which all computing is based. Called the “NOT” operation, it converts a 0 into a 1, and a 1 into a 0.

Their work has received important international recognition by the publication of a research paper in the prestigious journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the world’s largest general science organisation.

Dr Cowburn said: “This is the first time a logic function has been performed on a magnetic microchip. We have established that it is now possible to do basic arithmetic, and that is one of the key steps we need to take before we can realise the big picture in the development of magnetic electronics. It is important and exciting and there is still some way to go, but the potential is there to create a whole new technology based on magnetism rather than electricity.”

Nanoscale engineering involves working with materials at an extremely microscopic level. A nanometre is one thousand millionth of a metre – about the width of five atoms.

The current research is also an example of the new science of “spintronics”. The magnetic microchip uses the “spin” of an electron, which creates a north and south pole, to produce the 1s and 0s that in conventional electronics are made by switching between high voltage and low voltage.

The advantages of the new technology include:
– energy saving: the dissipation of power is many times less than from a traditional electronic microchip
– stability: the new chips are less ‘volatile’, in the sense that when the power is switched off, they don’t lose their memory
– size: a magnetic chip has the potential to be many times smaller than the corresponding electronic chip; it may be possible to make magnetic chips the size of just a few atoms.

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Keith Seacroft alfa

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