Semiconductor Technology Beyond Silicon: How New Materials Move Spintronics Towards Reality

Author / Editor: Michigan Engineering / Sebastian Gerstl

A new semiconductor compound is bringing fresh momentum to the field of spintronics, an emerging breed of computing device that may lead to smaller, faster, less power-hungry electronics.

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Preparation: MSE PhD student Juan Lopez cuts a glass tube used in the production process for a new semiconductor compound in the HH Dow building
Preparation: MSE PhD student Juan Lopez cuts a glass tube used in the production process for a new semiconductor compound in the HH Dow building
(Bild: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering)

Created from a unique low-symmetry crystal structure, the compound is the first to build spintronic properties into a material that's stable at room temperature and easily tailored to a variety of
applications. It could eventually be used as the base material for spintronic processors and other devices, much like silicon is the base for electronic computing devices.

Spintronics use both the "on" or "off"
electrical charge and the "up" or "down"
magnetic spin of electrons to store data,
whereas today's electronics use only
electrical charge. Spin-based circuits can be smaller than charge-based circuits, enabling device makers to pack more of them onto a single processor. This is a key advantage, since traditional electronics are approaching their physical size limits.

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"You can only make an electronic circuit so small before the charge of an electron
becomes erratic," said Ferdinand Poudeu, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan "But the spin of electrons remains stable at much smaller sizes, so spintronic devices open the door to a whole new generation of computing."

Spintronics can also retain data even after power is shut off, unlike today's
microprocessors and computer memory. This may enable device makers to combine
functions that require separate components in today's computing devices.

For example, instead of using a CPU to make calculations as well as RAM memory for primary and a hard drive for secondary storage, a single spintronic chip could
handle all three functions, dramatically
reducing size and power consumption of computers.

But spintronic semiconductors require precise levels of magnetism and
conductivity. Researchers have struggled to create one that can be easily tuned to the levels required and that maintains its
properties over a range of temperatures.
Poudeu said that the root of the problem lies in the crystalline structure that makes up semiconductors.

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