A discovery of unexpected properties of an insulating layer only a few atoms thick may lead to a new nanotech approach to faster computers by sorting electrons according to their spins. From University of California – Riverside, via AAAS EurekAlert “Discovery by UC Riverside physicists could enable development of faster computers“:
Physicists at UC Riverside have made an accidental discovery in the lab that has potential to change how information in computers can be transported or stored. Dependent on the “spin” of electrons, a property electrons possess that makes them behave like tiny magnets, the discovery could help in the development of spin-based semiconductor technology such as ultrahigh-speed computers.
The researchers were experimenting with ferromagnet/semiconductor (FM/SC) structures, which are key building blocks for semiconductor spintronic devices (microelectronic devices that perform logic operations using the spin of electrons). The FM/SC structure is sandwich-like in appearance, with the ferromagnet and semiconductor serving as microscopically thin slices between which lies a thinner still insulator made of a few atomic layers of magnesium oxide (MgO).
The researchers found that by simply altering the thickness of the MgO interface they were able to control which kinds of electrons, identified by spin, traveled from the semiconductor, through the interface, to the ferromagnet.
Study results appear in the June 13 issue of Physical Review Letters [abstract].
…”We see a dramatic and complete reversal in the spin of electrons that pass through the interface,” said Roland Kawakami, an assistant professor of physics who led the research team. “This time, spin up electrons pass through while spin down electrons are reflected back to the semiconductor. In other words, the thickness of the MgO interface determines whether spin up or spin down electrons are allowed to pass through it.”
According to his research team, such a “spin reversal” can be used to control current flow.