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Putting a New Spin on Computing

Physicists often like to remind people that our simple-minded picture of electrons is woefully naive. Electrons aren’t so much tiny little particles whizzing around an atomic nucleus as they are a kind of fuzzy wave function–a probabilistic distributions of electric…
April 27, 2004

Physicists often like to remind people that our simple-minded picture of electrons is woefully naive. Electrons aren’t so much tiny little particles whizzing around an atomic nucleus as they are a kind of fuzzy wave function–a probabilistic distributions of electric charge, forming an amorphous cloud. Funny thing, though: physics also tells us that electrons have spin–which is kind of hard to imagine about a probability cloud. But the experimental observations and the math all work out that way, and so there we are. Which brings us to today’s announcement that IBM and Stanford are teaming up to push what could become the next big thing in computing: spintronics. Electrons can spin in one of two ways, conventionally known as “up” and “down,” which indicates the direction of the magnetic field it produce. The phenomenon lends itself to binary systems, i.e. computing; manipulating the electrons’ spin (and hence magnetic field) could offer a new way to store and process informaion.

Spintronics technology is actually already in widespread use; the extraordinary expansion during the 1990s of computer hard drive capacity stems from the development of an IBM-discovered phenomenon called the giant magnetoresistive effect. And spintronic technology is at the heart of magnetic RAM (MRAM) technology which holds the promise of instant-on computing.

IBM is providing seed money for the venture, called The IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center (SpinAps). Stanford scientists will pull their share of the research load, and the two organizations will split the intellectual property. The IBM website talks about future developments such as reconfigurable logic devices, room-temperature superconductors, and quantum computers but says that commercial devices coming from the collaboration are at least five years out.

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