Tiny particles are making a big wave in cleantech development. Spintronics — short for spin electronics — is one of the most important fields advancing energy efficiency that you’ve probably never heard of.
It’s considered a key emerging research area because of the potential to produce electronic devices with high memory, high speed, and low power consumption. Put simply, spintronics is a next-generation concept that could transform data storage and processing.
Spintronics deals with tiny structures — really tiny, at the nanoscale. The physics and engineering field focuses on the spin of electrons inside atoms, which is a property related to magnetism.
The basis for most computers right now is the electrons’ charge instead of the spin. Computers are reaching some of their operating limits, but spin-based systems could overcome many of the limitations.
“One of the big challenges for people working in electronics is how we can design new technologies that reduce the energy consumption by electronic chips,” Xiaobo Sharon Hu, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame, told Centered. “One of the energy technologies that has gained some popularity is spintronics.”
Much of the nation’s prominent spintronics work is taking place in the Midwest. The Spintronic Materials for Advanced InfoRmation Technologies (SMART) Center, headquartered at the University of Minnesota, brings together spin-based computing and memory system experts to develop new technologies.
“You can separate the electrons with different features, and in this way now we suddenly get actual control of electron behaviors,” Jian-Ping Wang, Robert Hartmann Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and SMART Center director, told Centered. “That means you can have flexibility to design what you want. Those devices would be more powerful.”
Building on old concepts
Spin is an electron feature discovered about a century ago, but advancements and applications stagnated until the last few decades. In the 2000s, scientists recognized viable applications for the semiconductor industry and next-generation computing systems.
“Until the 1990s, there was not much going on,” Wang said. “In the past 10 years — eight years, really — it is really moving forward with a lot of new things happening. Every two months I can see some new, very exciting papers being published.”
In December, for example, University of Nebraska researchers published a study addressing some of the magnetic challenges with spintronic devices. They’re collaborating with a research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a specialized magnetic device to further test their theories.
The UW-Madison researcher, Chang Beom-Eom, led a team that last year published a study about their material that has three times the storage density and less power consumption than other spintronics devices. He visited Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to use its Advanced Photon Source, a high-energy X-ray light source facility, for his research.
A research team led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities published a study last year that provides a more detailed look at what causes magnetic materials’ energy leakage. The findings will allow engineers to develop more energy-efficient materials with less energy leakage, eventually resulting in higher-quality computers.
Controlling energy consumption
“Digital data storage is a large energy consumer,” and electronics giants — such as Amazon Cloud Services and Google server farms — often have their own power plants just to support the massive amounts of energy they require, Hu said. “In a sense, the energy consumption of electronics is in a large part related to the greenhouse effect.”
Conventional memory chips need power to store data even if they’re not actively in use, resulting in more wasted energy. This type of memory is called volatile. Spintronics is a nonvolatile type of memory, which saves a significant amount of power, Hu said.
She especially focuses on designing circuits for computer chips. Spintronics devices enable potentially smaller circuits with higher data storage density while supporting computation, further reducing energy consumption. Circuit architecture is one of several spintronics research foci, with others including the memory devices or the base materials.
Currently, writing data to spintronics devices is expensive. Researchers are working to optimize functionality, such as reading and writing speeds, while also ensuring the technologies are cost-competitive.
Going to market
Wang says many challenges exist with commercializing spintronics technologies. Only a small number of research groups can advance the science, and most of them are at universities instead of private R&D groups. The gap means industry still hesitates to work on or adopt spintronics technologies. The innovations need to be “close to maturity for industry to use them,” Wang said.
Plus, spintronics research is more expensive than other fields because of the molecules and lab equipment required. And less funding tends to be available now for lesser-known fields like spintronics than for higher-profile energy innovations.
However, a spintronics-related industry collaboration is taking place in Illinois. Computer tech giant Intel is installing hardware for a quantum computing testbed at Argonne National Laboratory. Qubits, or quantum bits, are the basic unit of quantum information. The Intel project involves spin qubits for storing information.
“It turns out that spin qubits look a lot like transistors, of which Intel ships 800 quadrillion every year. The similarities between the two technologies mean we can leverage Intel’s expertise in semiconductor design and manufacturing for spin qubits,” said Jeanette Roberts, who leads Intel’s quantum measurement team, in a news release. “We’re harnessing the Intel infrastructure to help make quantum computing a reality.”
Spintronics could be close to another step-change moment, which could make it more attractive to industry, according to Wang.
“We believe this is the future,” he said. “You have to be patient sometimes.”