January 31, 2013
Researchers Create 3D Spintronic Microchip
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have created, for the first time, a new type of microchip that allows information to move in three dimensions -- from left to right, back to front, and top to bottom.
The breakthrough could allow a many-fold increase in performance compared with current microchips, which can only pass digital information in two dimensions - from either left to right or front to back.
Researchers believe that 3D microchips could someday enable additional storage capacity on chips by allowing information to be spread across several layers, instead of compacted into one.
"Today's chips are like bungalows — everything happens on the same floor. We've created the stairways allowing information to pass between floors,” said Dr. Reinoud Lavrijsen, who authored a paper about the work.
The Cambridge researchers used a special type of microchip known as a spintronic chip, which exploits the electron's tiny magnetic moment, or 'spin´, unlike traditional chips that use charge-based electronic technology. Spintronic chips are increasingly being used in computers, and are expected to become the standard memory chip within a few years.
The researchers used an experimental technique called “sputtering,” which effectively layered cobalt, platinum and ruthenium atoms atop a silicon chip.
The cobalt and platinum atoms store digital information similar to the way in which a hard drive stores data. The ruthenium atoms then act as messengers, communicating that information between neighboring layers of cobalt and platinum — each of which are just a few atoms thick.
To verify the data content of the different layers, the researchers used a laser technique known as MOKE. They found that as they switched a magnetic field on and off, the MOKE signal showed the data climbing layer by layer from the bottom of the chip to the top.
The scientists also confirmed the results using a different measurement method.
"Each step on our spintronic staircase is only a few atoms high,” said Professor Russell Cowburn from the University of Cambridge's Department of Physics, the study´s lead researcher.
“I find it amazing that by using nanotechnology not only can we build structures with such precision in the lab but also using advanced laser instruments we can actually see the data climbing this nano-staircase step by step.”
"This is a great example of the power of advanced materials science. Traditionally, we would use a series of electronic transistors to move data like this. We've been able to achieve the same effect just by combining different basic elements such as cobalt, platinum and ruthenium. This is the 21st century way of building things — harnessing the basic power of elements and materials to give built-in functionality."
The research was published January 31 in the journal Nature.