IBM, Stanford Team on Nanotech Project

Two leading U.S.-based technology developers — IBM and Stanford University — are partnering to launch an advanced research project to create new high-performance, low-power electronics in the emerging field of nanotechnology called “spintronics.”

A recent report by a leading technology analysis firm indicates that ongoing research into spintronics, a method aimed at enabling spin-polarized current flow through semiconductors, is likely to result in a completely new class of consumer electronics in coming years.

Scientists at IBM’s Almaden Research Center and Stanford University this week announced the formation of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center (SpinAps).

21st Century’s Transistor?

“SpinAps researchers will work to create breakthroughs that could revolutionize the electronics industry, just as the transistor did 50 years ago,” Robert Morris, director of the IBM Almaden Research Center, told TechNewsWorld.

Morris noted that the microelectronics industry has progressed by shrinking circuitry. But this approach to pushing technology advancements is becoming “much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive,” he noted.

There is now a worldwide search for new ideas that can deliver improved performance in smaller sizes than is possible with conventional designs, Morris said.

The recent report on spintronics by Frost & Sullivan’s technical insights division provides some other insights into this emerging industry. According to the study, spintronics researchers are developing electronic devices that employ ferromagnetic materials, a strategy that is leading to the creation of ultrafast switches and fully programmable, all-spintronics microprocessors that combine storage, logic and communications on a single chip.

Charge and Spin

Charge is not the only property of the electron. Like some other subatomic particles, the electron also has a property called spin.

Research into the spin of electrons is at the center of a global, multidisciplinary effort — involving chemists and physicists — to add another dimension of control to electronics.

Researchers are still learning how to control the spin of electrons to align them in materials being created to exploit their properties in new electronics devices. Materials designed to exploit the spin of the electron are emerging, but the only spintronic device currently in use is a device called the two-terminal giant magnetoresistance (GMR) sensor.

The new report says spintronics has potential in fields as diverse as consumer electronics, sensors for robots, fuel-handling systems for chemical plants, and weapons guidance systems.

From Concept to Product

“The SpinAps scientists will dramatically hasten progress from theoretical concept to experimental verification and from new-device ideas to product prototypes,” said Stanford University’s dean of engineering, James D. Plummer.

Plummer said SpinAps scientists envision creating new materials and devices with entirely novel capabilities — such as reconfigurable logic devices, room-temperature superconductors and quantum computers — that would create dramatically new computational paradigms. But commercial products from SpinAps research are not expected for at least five years.

The project itself will be directed by IBM Fellow Stuart Parkin and Stanford professors James S. Harris and Shoucheng Zhang. Parkin is a pioneer in the science and application of spintronic materials, and Zhang is a theoretician who has made several contributions to understanding superconductors and related electron phenomena.

Research at the SpinAps Center will involve about a half-dozen Stanford professors, a similar number of IBM scientists, up to 10 graduate students working at both IBM Almaden and Stanford, three or more postdoctoral researchers and two or more visiting faculty.

Basis for These Developments

“Superior optical properties of semiconductors and their ability to amplify both optical and electrical signals will form the basis for these developments, which will eventually contribute to the emergence of semiconductor spintronics,” Frost & Sullivan analyst Charles Joslin told TechNewsWorld.

But Joslin stressed that the commercial viability of this technology depends on devising economical ways to combine ferromagnetic metals and semiconductors in integrated circuits. This is proving to be a demanding task because of differences in crystal structure and chemical bonding properties.

There are other challenges as well.

“The scope of semiconductor spintronics hinges on the development of techniques for injection, transportation and detection of spin-polarized currents without using strong magnetic fields, which will also be effective at or above room temperature,” Joslin said.

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