IBM claims spintronics breakthrough with 'waltzing electrons' observations

IBM claims spintronics breakthrough with 'waltzing electrons' observations

Summary: Researchers from the company and a Zurich university have directly mapped the formation of a spin helix in a semiconductor, in a step that could one day lead to smaller, more power-efficient computers

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

Researchers from IBM and the ETH Zurich university have directly mapped the formation of a spin helix in a semiconductor for the first time.

The mapping is important because it could be a step towards 'spintronics' replacing much of today's electronics. In theory, the emerging technology will allow for smaller devices that are much more power-efficient than those available today.

The measured spatial and temporal spread of a spin helix, as captured by IBM researchers
The measured spatial and temporal spread of a spin helix (Credit: IBM)

Electronics is based on manipulating the electrical charge of electrons. However, semiconductors are getting smaller and at some point soon it will no longer be possible to control the flow of electrons in this way.

However, electrons also spin. The field of spintronics capitalises on the idea of controlling the direction of that spin and using it to store or process data. Compared to standard electronics, this uses less energy, allowing for smaller batteries, and produces less heat, lessening the need for cooling systems.

Sunday's announcement revealed that the researchers had not only got a collection of electrons spinning synchronously, but that they had also been able to view the result for a reasonable amount of time.

According to the researchers, electrons can spin in much the same way as partners dancing the waltz.

"If all couples start with the women facing north, after a while the rotating pairs are oriented in different directions," researcher Gian Salis said in a statement. "We can now lock the rotation speed of the dancers to the direction they move. This results in a perfect choreography where all the women in a certain area face the same direction."

"This control and ability to manipulate and observe the spin is an important step in the development of spin-based transistors that are electrically programmable," Salis added.

The scientists monitored the formation of the spin helix using a time-resolved scanning microscope technique. They were able to observe the spins travelling for more than 10 micrometres.

However, they did all this at -233 degrees Celsius. This is one of the big problems with spintronics at the moment — it will need to work much closer to room temperature if it is to become viable in everyday systems.

Topic: Emerging Tech

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • We owe IBM big time

    The spintronics is just today's pick in a stream of inventions we owe to a company that is into basic concepts and their commercialization. Most of today's patents are awarded to stuff we already know and do and are the products of legal thought rather than technical.

    Over the years, sitting on various ANSI committees I had to opportunity to visit the IBM Yorktown Heights campus. During breaks, we would go down to this lunch room -- and have our IBM hosts point out the Nobel prize laureates drinking coffee. Yes, under Gerstner they morphed from a mainframe manufacturer into a service company, but never forgot that inventive spark and its derivation from "smart silicon".

    Thank you IBM.
  • I'm biting my tongue.

    "Electronics is based on manipulating the electrical charge of electrons."

    You mean converting electrons to positrons and back?

    Actually, electronics it's based on controlling the /flow/ of electrons (and holes, in semiconductors), including the intensity of the flow.
    • Manipulate this

      I figured they were either changing them back and forth between electrons and positrons, or modulating the charge up and down from -1.60217733 * 10**19 Coulomb. If IBM can do that, we should fear them.
      Robert Hahn
  • "Electrons Also Spin"

    Physicists say "spin", but what they really mean is "intrinsic angular momentum". Trying to visualize subatomic particles actually spinning leads to difficulties, because it means parts of their "surfaces" (whatever those might be) would have to be moving faster than light.

    Welcome to the world of quantum theory.