Magnetic Microchips Provide New Spin on Processors - How it Works
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Instead of harnessing the electrical charge of electrons, the researchers used the quantum mechanical property of “spin.” Spin has two directions, “up” and “down.” An electron’s spin creates a north and south pole, and this can be used to produce the ones and zeroes needed for computing. This stands in contrast to the way it is done with conventional electronics, where ones and zeroes are produced by switching between high and low voltage.
I really wish I’d been watching the developments on this technology from the beginning. As you might imagine, it didn’t just come from out of the blue. About three years ago, scientists at Durham University managed to carry out the NOT operation using a magnetic microchip. One of the most fundamental computing tasks, it converts a zero into a one, and a one into a zero.
Dr. Russell Cowburn, part of the team involved in that effort, put the matter into perspective. “This is the first time a logic function has been performed on a magnetic microchip. We have established that it is now possible to do basic arithmetic, and that is one of the key steps we need to take before we can realize the big picture in the development of magnetic electronics. It is important and exciting and there is still some way to go, but the potential is there to create a whole new technology based on magnetism rather than electricity.”
The team’s progress after 2002 included the creation of more logic gates like the one that performed the NOT operation, plus interconnecting structures using magnetic “nanowires.” Computer functions are performed at the nodes where these nanowires meet. You can think of it as similar to neurons and axons in the brain. So far, in addition to the working NOT gate, the researchers have also created an 11-stage serial shift register/frequency divider. This might sound modest, but be advised: the team is working with commercial partners to develop the technology. The next step is a more advanced demonstrator chip, which will be built using full microchip manufacturing facilities.
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