Magnetism may be the key to faster, smaller computers. Researchers at the University of Leeds are working on new materials that would allow computer memory and other components to use magnetism rather than conventional electrical charges. As a result, the computer could work as soon as it was turned on because it wouldn’t need power to reload its memory and get it working.
Spintronics is the term used to describe magnetism in microelectronic components. It’s already being used for reading high performance hard disks, like those in iPods. A similar device can also magnetically store information on a memory chip without need for an electric charge. Charges leak away and have to be replenished a thousand times a second, but magnetism doesn't require a power supply. It can also be used to control the flow of electrons in a component so a chip could re-configure itself in the most effective way for each calculation it handled.
The project also includes includes researchers from Cambridge, Imperial, Durham, Glasgow, Exeter, and City universities and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The group, called Spin@RT, is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is supported by some of the world's biggest hard-drive and electronics manufacturers.
Leeds specializes in making magnetic materials and are able to use a “sputter” machine to fabricate materials in layers with thickness control equivalent to adding or removing a single atom. Researcher Dr Chris Marrows explains that "we are in effect spray painting with atoms in the sputter machine. It gives us the control to build materials layer by layer. It's the same process—but much more clean and controlled—that causes thin gray layers of gunk to form at the ends of a fluorescent light bulb."
Unlike the flash memory in digital cameras, spintronic memory can be written to more quickly and won't wear out. Also, it could make computers less power hungry, reducing electricity consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
University of Leeds