Electronic Design

Investing In Innovation

If entrepreneurial minds are the oxygen of innovation, then investment must be the lifeblood. A couple of items help to illustrate. First is antiferromagnetic coupling. Magnetic data storage is a wellrecognised technology used in computer hard drives, MP3 players, and many other applications where data is stored on metallic-based systems. That may be all fine and good. But when it comes to using the stored data, it must be communicated to a processor, which takes time.

Thus, it was interesting to see researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) demonstrate the magnetic property called antiferromagnetic coupling. It applies to semiconductor devices whereby one layer spontaneously aligns its magnetic pole in the opposite direction of the next layer.

Such a discovery may pave the way for smaller and faster devices with integral magnetic data storage, which could quickly process the data through built-in logic circuits controlled by electric fields.

NIST is not alone in this work. Researchers from Korea Univ. and the Univ. of Notre Dame have supported theories that thin magnetic layers of semiconductor material could exhibit antiferromagnetic coupling. Only recently, though, has the property been considered useful in semiconductor materials.

Semiconductors with magnetic properties could process as well as store data. A widely studied magnetic semiconductor material is gallium arsenide, with magnetic atoms taking the place of some of the gallium atoms. By creating thin films of this material separated by a non-magnetic material, antiferromagnetic coupling can be achieved.

A key point is that with magnetic fields, it becomes feasible to switch the magnetisation of a layer back and forth to create logic circuits that operate via magnetic fields.

The future of the electronics industry, of course, hinges on such groundbreaking research. Pleasing to see, then, that such research in Europe received an encouraging financial boost from a funding initiative approved by the European Commission. The funding will be available for information and communication technology (ICT) research. The Commission plans to increase funding of future and emerging technologies (FET) by 70% by 2013 to €170M annually.

Work on neural networks has benefited from such funding in the past. For instance, research work led to an amazing brain-to-computer interface that will let wheelchair users control direction through thought. Viviane Reding, European commissioner for Information, Society and Media, said that in this period of economic uncertainty, ICT becomes even more essential to revitalise economies, improve productivity, and boost our capacity to innovate.

I couldn’t agree more. All too often, companies see cost cutting as the only way to ride out a recession. It helps, but it should be remembered that engineering moves forward on innovation, and that takes investment.

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