Why today's tiny MP3 players will soon look cumbersome

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2007 10:32 am    Post subject: Why today's tiny MP3 players will soon look cumbersome Reply with quote

Scientists at a Welsh university are working on 'next generation' computer chips which will see processors with mind-boggling memories the size of a grain of sand.

The so-called spintronic processors are the new kid on the memory chip block and will lead to mobile music players that people can talk to, reduced to the size of a button. The new technology will have military uses with tiny spy planes the size of flies able to collect and send back information over hundreds of miles. And it will lead to virtually invisible medical devices such as pacemakers being injected into our bodies.

Spin electronics is possible because a peculiar quality of electrons - the particles of an atom which flow together to create electric charges. Electrons have been found to spin in two directions 'up' or 'down' almost like an ultra-tiny switch and this is what spintronics researchers aim to exploit.

Since the 1970s conventional electronic microprocessors have operated by shuttling packets of electronic charge along ever-smaller semiconductor channels. But there is a limit to the amount of charge semiconductors can take. Now, however, physicists are starting to use the on-off 'spin' of the electron rather than its charge to write instructions and store data. Because the spin is natural, less energy will be needed and because it is on a scale smaller than the atom, it will allow much more information to be stored or processed in a much smaller space.

Dr Kar Seng (Vincent) Teng, who is a lecturer in nanoelectronics at Swansea University and is cited in the US Who's Who in Science and Engineering for his work in nanotechnology, is working on enhancing spintronics. He is researching a so-called nanoneedle, a semiconducting laser tool less than the size of an atom which will be used to 'etch' information into spintronic processors.

An article on nanoneedles by Dr Teng and his colleague at Swansea University's nanotechnology centre, Professor Stephen Wilks, has become one of the most downloaded physics subjects on the internet. Dr Teng said, 'We welcome this news, as it demonstrates there is significant international interest in using these nano-materials for future technology, in information storage and optical computing.' He added, 'They will be smaller, more versatile and more robust than those currently making up silicon chips and circuit elements. 'The potential market is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year.'

While the technology needs fine tuning, companies such as Toshiba and Sony are already producing memory chips using spintronic elements that promise longer life and more power than today's devices. A Swansea University spokesman said, 'Nanotechnology is leaking into popular culture with stories of tiny robotic submarines navigating our bloodstream being commonplace. Our multidisciplinary nanotechnology centre is one of the most advanced of its kind in Europe.'

While robotic submarines are being worked on in laboratories, today's products of nanotechnology are much more mundane - stain-resistant trousers, better sun creams and tennis rackets reinforced with carbon nanotubes. And the military will have 'lab-on-a-chip' sensors to analyse data instantly to detect, for example, biological attacks. But the most lucrative arena for spintronics will be mass market mobile music players and CDs and DVDs which Dr Teng is working on, containing whole libraries of films, books or other information.

Sources: IC Wales.co.uk & Western Mail


Story first posted: 9th February 2007.
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