Spintronics – or spin electronics – is an emerging technology that exploits the intrinsic spin of the electron rather than its charge, as is the case with current electronic devices.
The technology promises microelectronic devices that can store more data in less space, process data faster, and consume less power. Researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) have now demonstrated the first plastic memory device that utilizes the spin of electrons to read and write data.
OSU’s Arthur J. Epstein and colleagues have created a prototype plastic spintronic device using techniques found in the mainstream computer industry today. At this point, the device is little more than a thin strip of dark blue organic-based magnet layered with a metallic ferromagnet (a magnet made of ferrous metal such as iron) and connected to two electrical leads. Still, the researchers successfully recorded data on it and retrieved the data by controlling the spins of the electrons with a magnetic field.
Epstein, Distinguished University Professor of physics and chemistry and director of the Institute for Magnetic and Electronic Polymers at OSU, described the material as a hybrid of a semiconductor that is made from organic materials and a special magnetic polymer semiconductor. As such, it is a bridge between today’s computers and the all-polymer, spintronic computers that he and his partners hope to enable in the future.
Charge v spin
Normal electronics encode computer data based on a binary code of ones and zeros, depending on whether an electron is present in a void within the material. But researchers have long known that electrons can be polarized to orient in particular directions, like a bar magnet. They refer to this orientation as spin – either “spin up” or “spin down” – and have been working on a way to store data using spin. The resulting electronics, dubbed spintronics, would effectively let computers store and transfer twice as much data per electron.
But higher data density is only part of the story.
“Spintronics is often just seen as a way to get more information out of an electron, but really it’s about moving to the next generation of electronics,” Epstein said. “We could solve many of the problems facing computers today by using spintronics.”