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Magnetic Microchip Performs Key Computer Operation

Scientists have successfully carried out a basic computer operation using a magnetic microchip -- a major step along the way to establishing a new generation of electronics and computer technology.

The work was done at Durham University in the UK.

Scientists there are working in the rapidly growing field of nanotechnology, harnessing the magnetic properties of electrons, rather than their electrical charge, on which conventional electronics is based.

Magnetic microchips could, in the future, offer a range of benefits over standard chips in terms of size, cost, flexibility, stability and energy efficiency.

Magnetic methods of storing information have already been demonstrated. Now, in the Department of Physics at Durham, Dr. Dan Allwood, Dr. Russell Cowburn and the rest of Dr. Cowburn’s team have taken the next key step of using a magnetic chip to perform one of the most fundamental tasks on which all computing is based:

Called the “NOT” operation, it converts a 0 into a 1, and a 1 into a 0.

Their work is published in today's issue of Science.

Dr. Cowburn said, “This is the first time a logic function has been performed on a magnetic microchip. We have established that it is now possible to do basic arithmetic, and that is one of the key steps we need to take before we can realize the big picture in the development of magnetic electronics.

"It is important and exciting and there is still some way to go, but the potential is there to create a whole new technology based on magnetism rather than electricity.”

Nanoscale engineering involves working with materials at an extremely microscopic level. A nanometer is one thousand millionth of a meter -- about the width of five atoms.

The current research is also an example of the new science of “spintronics.” The magnetic microchip uses the “spin” of an electron, which creates a north and south pole, to produce the 1s and 0s that in conventional electronics are made by switching between high voltage and low voltage.

The advantages of the new technology include:

· energy saving: the dissipation of power is many times less than from a traditional electronic microchip;

· stability: the new chips are less "volatile," in the sense that when the power is switched off, they don’t lose their memory;

· size: a magnetic chip has the potential to be many times smaller than the corresponding electronic chip; it may be possible to make magnetic chips the size of just a few atoms.

The paper is titled: Submicrometer Ferromagnetic NOT Gate and Shift Register. The complete team of authors, all from the University of Durham, is D. A. Allwood, G. Xiong, M. D. Cooke, C. C. Faulkner, D. Atkinson, N. Vernier and R. P. Cowburn.

The University of Durham Physics Department has a leading Grade 5 in the national assessment of research quality, which recognizes world-class work in many branches of physics, from materials science to particle theory and cosmology. It was also the first Durham department to be awarded the maximum 24 points for teaching quality. It is one of the largest science departments at Durham, with about 450 undergraduates and more than 70 postgraduates.

Dr. Cowburn and his nano-magnetics research team will expand into more laboratory space later this year as a result of a new building, the Ogden Centre for Fundamental Physics, due to open in the fall.

(Editor's Note: The team will be presenting a display at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2-4 July in London, one of the country's premier science showcase events.).

Related website:

Durham Nanoscale Magnetics Group

[Contact: Dr. Russell Cowburn ]






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