Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Tuesday, 13 November 2007
Future directions in computing



Spintronics, also known as magnetoelectronics, is a technology that harnesses the spin of particles, a property ignored by conventional electronics.

Concept picture of spinning electron
Spintronics harnesses the spin of sub-atomic particles

"Until now, electronics has worked by moving electrons around or moving charge around and that takes work," said Kevin Roche of computer giant IBM. "The most obvious example of that is that if you have a laptop that runs faster, it runs hotter."

But, by using the spin of particles - detected as a weak magnetic force - scientists believe they can unlock almost infinite computing power.

"It is called spin because the maths for dealing with it is similar to the maths for a spinning ball," said Mr Roche. "An electron always has spin and it can be spinning one of two different ways: up or down."

These two different states can be used to represent a "1" or a "0" - the bits of information used by all computers.

Basic spintronic devices are already used in today's computers.

For example, most hard drives today use a "spin valve", a device that reads information off the individual disks or platters that make up a hard drive.

But researchers at firms such as Intel and IBM are hoping to take this one stage further.

"We are hoping to use it to store data, to transmit data; to do all the things we do now with charge but to use the spin property of the electron instead," said Mr Roche.

Chips exploiting spintronics would in theory be able to transmit data with spin using a lot less charge.

"So power costs go down," said Mr Roche.

IBM has already shown off a prototype spintronic device known as "racetrack memory", a device that could increase storage density by up to 100 times.

Other researchers are working on spin-based transistors, which unlike conventional transistors would not require the application of an electric current to work.

According to many researchers, spintronics could be the next big change in computing in the coming decades.

"The conventional microelectronics industry and the magnetic storage industry are approaching their limits very fast. Spintronics might offer a way out," Dr Yongbing Xu of the University of York told the BBC earlier this year.




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