Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Spintronics: a new kind of electrical current?

Posted by John Keller

Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington reportedly have been able to generate and control a new kind of electrical current -- spin current, as opposed to charge current -- which holds the potential to increase performance, decrease power consumption, and improve heat dissipation in electronics.

I first saw this story on Slashdot, and it sounds pretty interesting. Talk to any electronics engineer, and the discussion inevitably moves to improving performance, using less electricity, and dumping excess heat. These represent the holy grail of electronics development. Now maybe the Navy is getting us closer to these goals.

This research area is called spintronics, which seeks to build electronics that rely on electron spin rather than electron charge to carry information. The NRL scientists were able to generate, modulate, and electrically detect a pure spin current in silicon, the most common semiconductor material for electronics.

It's not clear how far away this technology might be from practical use. If NRL is doing it, it's still pretty much in the area of sandboxy pure research, but NRL's work certainly is encouraging to military and aerospace electronics who are trying to design electronics for tiny spaces aboard a growing variety of unmanned vehicles, wearable computers, portable sensors, and other equipment.

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