Ferromagnet imaging technique could enable 'spintronic' devices

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Ferromagnet imaging technique could enable 'spintronic' devices

Researchers have developed a new method of studying tiny magnets that could yield high-density memory based on the emerging field of spintronics.

By implanting tiny “ferromagnets” onto processor chips, researchers expect to create small electronic devices and computers that never need to boot up.

Ferromagnets are magnets made of ferrous metal such as iron, and are used in common items such as refrigerator magnets.

According to experimental physicist Chris Hammel, ferromagnets are central to incorporating memory directly into the basic logic elements at the heart of a computer.

“Ferromagnets offer high density memory -- that is a means of storing a great deal of information in a small volume without the problem that the information is lost when the computer is turned off,” said Hammel, who developed the new imaging technique at Ohio State University.

“This could mean computers that don't need to boot; or even more exciting prospect of being able to alter the way your computer operates on the fly and without the configuration being lost when the computer is turned off,” he told iTnews.

Historically, researchers have been unable to image the insides of tiny ferromagnets due to their size and the strong magnetic fields they emit.

The new technique combines three different kinds of technology: magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) similar to the technology used for medical purposes; and two related techniques, ferromagnetic resonance and atomic force microscopy.

Dubbed “scanned probe ferromagnetic resonance force microscopy”, or scanned probe FMRFM, it involves detecting a magnetic signal using a tiny silicon bar with an even tinier magnetic probe on its tip.

The probe captures a two dimensional cross-section of an object as it passes over a material, resulting in a curved bowl-shaped image.

Using the new technique, Hammel is measuring the properties of disk-shaped magnets that measure only two micrometres in diameter.

“MRI is fundamentally in applicable to ferromagnets because of the strong interactions between electronic spins that make the material magnetic,” Hamel explained.

“We became interested in applying this [scanned probe FMRFM technique] to the tiny ferromagnets that are used for memory or for spintronics,” he said.

Hammel and his team hope to contribute to the development of an instrument that could be sold and used routinely in laboratories.

Further developments need to occur before the technique enables new devices and spintronics-based technology.

“We need our technology to become commercially available and we need spintronics to merge with silicon,” Hammel explained. “This advance is underway and I expect significant progress in the next decade.”

“Spintronics and memory have been moving very fast; we believe that a new imaging tool such as we have discovered could hasten this progress dramatically.”

“I think we will see this technology impacting computing units included in niche applications such as cell phones within five to ten years,” he said.
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