Scientist wins European award for tiny 'spintronic' microchips

September 20, 2006

Brussels, 19 Sep 2006

A UK scientist has been awarded the Degussa European Science-to-Business Award 2006 for his pioneering work on 'spintronic 'microchips. With their ability to increase the capacity of data storage by 100 times, the new microchips look set to revolutionise modern technology. Professor Russell Cowburn from Imperial College London's Department of Physics picked up the €100,000 award for using nanotechnology to reproduce the key functions of semiconductor electronics in microchips using only the 'spin' of electrons, a quantum property. Spintronics (spin-based electronics) chips use an electron's magnetism, rather than the more conventional 'charge' that traditional microchips use.

The advantages of using this nano-based process over conventional electronics are diverse. 'Spintronic' chips have been shown to use less energy than traditional electronic microchips. They are also considered to be less 'volatile' - spintronic chips do not lose their memory when the power is switched-off. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these magnetic chips have the potential to be many times smaller than the corresponding electronic chip.

'Traditionally we have used electronics for microchips and magnetism for hard disk drives. This discovery allows us to combine these two approaches to make a new generation of 3D microchips that can store so much more information than a flat two dimensional surface,' Prof Cowburn said.

According to the Professor, his research has proven that spintronic microchips are a workable proposition which have huge implications for the way everyday electronics devices work. Currently, storing large amounts of data requires the use of a hard disk, which can be bulky and which needs access to a large battery power source. Spintronic microchips would mean that portable devices such as mobile phones and MP3 players would be able to store vast quantities of image, audio and video files, whilst remaining very small and light.

Experts believe that new nanotechnology has huge business potential, and have already put an estimate market at more than €100 million over the medium term. 'I'm delighted to have been given this Degussa award, which recognises not only the scientific importance of spintronics, but the viability of my plans to take this technology to the commercial market,' said Prof Cowburn.

The award targets scientists under the age of 35 who have carried out research at a European facility in the last two years that shows real commercial promise. The initiative was launched by Degussa AG, Germany's market leading speciality chemicals company, in partnership with the financial newspaper Handelsblatt and the international business school INSEAD.

Speaking at the award ceremony on 11 September, Dr Alfred Oberholz, the Degussa management board member responsible for research and development, said that the award participants represented hope for the future of research and innovation in Europe: 'Because what they have done is to demonstrate quite remarkably how outstanding research can be coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit. And that is a fundamental requirement if Europe is to have a chance of expanding its position among the international competition. This is precisely where we are seeking to make a contribution with our Science-to-Business Award.'

At the time of its launch in 2005, the award's patron, Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, said: 'I like this initiative for several reasons: it is a showcase for excellence in European research, it makes a connection between research and business [...], and awards help encourage young people to take up careers in research.'

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