Spin Doctors

Seán O’Neill explains the science behind the new breakthrough technology Spintronics and what it means for you

What phenomenon has caught the attention of the finest minds from Cambridge, The French National Centre for Scientific Research and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne? No, it’s not how they get the figs into the fig rolls. It’s spintronics! Of course, how could it be anything else? It’s the talk of Tinseltown. I hear Jennifer Lawrence is signed up to star in the David Fincher-directed thriller Spun Out, which sees her play special agent Jane Spinner who is tasked with saving the president from a vaguely plausible sounding threat. It contains as much actual science as this opening paragraph.

Spintronics is the science of manipulating the magnetic moment, or ‘spin’ of an electron to convey information for computing purposes, instead of just using the charge that an electron carries. This is a form of technology that has been long used in storage mediums such as hard drives, but is now beginning to rear its head in systems performing logic operations, a medium formerly dominated by charge-based systems.

The advantage of using spintronics over traditional charge-based systems is that they can carry out much more complex calculations much quicker

The advantage of using spintronics over traditional charge-based systems is that they can carry out complex calculations much quicker. This is as a result of what is being called ‘quantum computing’. In traditional computing all operations are based on ‘bits’ which each contain a 1 or 0 value, and each of these values answers a specific question, which the computer will then use to build up the data that is being transferred.

Think about the computer as being a game of “Guess Who?”. You ask your opponent a series of yes or no questions with the aim of making an image in your head of what character your opponent/partner has in front of them. This form of information transfer is like this, only instead of you trying to figure out whether your brother has Alfred or Bill, it’s the computer piecing together how to play the newest Bruno Mars song that you’ve just downloaded.

Now, with quantum computing, instead of asking ‘Do they have blond hair?’, ‘Do they have red hair?’, ‘Do they have black hair?’ etc., you could ask ‘What colour hair do they have?’ Now this is a pretty big simplification of how computers work but it’s similar in principle, so from this you can see how much quicker this would be in a single operation, let alone in a system of connected logical operations.

Now, quantum computing is something that has been long toted as the future of computing and when you look at its posibble applications it’s not hard to see why.  If put in the right hands with the right understanding, quantum computing can positively impact everything from internet security, by providing more complicated hashes and encryption for passwords, to scientific research, by increasing the speed at which computations can take place and so we can find out things like more digits of pi.

There are currently a few hurdles that spintronics must overcome if it is to be the breakthrough that quantum computing requires. First of all, there’s a lack of knowledge as to how magnetic fields interact with electric current. This understanding is needed for information transfer at such a small scale. 1 bit takes up approximately 20nm2 which is roughly the size of 200 hydrogen atoms. Spintronics has been the standard for storage devices since around the 1980s, but there’s a distance left to run before it reaches the same level of prestige in information transfer. Similarly, there are very few algorithms that take full advantage of the improvements that spintronics can offer, so even if the hardware is fully developed and integrated, there would still be the need for research into the software and other elements to reach peak effectiveness.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the future of computing however. Innovations such as topological insulators have begun to close the gap between reality and theory. Topological insulators are materials which are primarily used as insulators, but allow conduction to occur across the surface of the materials. Research has been done all over the world in this area, but the University Of Utah, Department Of Material Science and Engineering, has recently had positive results using a bismuth-silicon combination. Calling these materials ‘insulators’ belies their true purpose. There always have and always will be insulators that insulate. The implications of this technology can result in much smaller computers, as space is saved when a designer doesn’t have to include a conductor and a separate insulator.

Progress can also be seen in companies like D-wave Computing. D-wave are a company based out of Canada who claim to have developed the first quantum computer in the world. While they are indeed very fast computers, there may be disagreements from specialists in the field as to whether they are in fact quantum. But even if these computers currently being bandied about turn out not to be quantum in nature, it does show two positives. Firstly, it shows that there is an interest in the technology, which means there is a market. Secondly, maybe the technology isn’t as far away as we think.

Maybe it will even be here in time for agent Spinner to save the president after all.