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University of Leeds; Durham University; University of Cambridge;University of Exeter; University of Glasgow; City University London; Imperial College London; University of Warwick; ISIS, Science and Technology Facilities Council

Spintronics is a new field of research based on a property of electrons known as their spin or magnetic moment. ‘Conventionally the charge of an electron is used for data storage and processing,’ explains Burnell. ‘In spintronics we aim to use the spin state of the electron, which can be up or down.’

Spintronics all began with the discovery of Giant Magneto Resistance (GMR), a discovery awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics.Today’s computer data storage capabilities are only possible due to GMR. Gavin Burnell, a physicist at the University of Leeds, explains. ‘Data on hard disc drives is stored as little magnets, GMR has provided an extremely sensitive means of detecting these magnets. The more sensitive the data reader, the more data can be contained on a disc so we have seen a 10,000 fold increase in capacity of hard disc drives.’

GMR has enabled more sensitive data reading but the next step is to directly use spin state for data storage. ‘Currently the random access memory of your computer needs to be topped up with power to prevent data loss,’ says Burnell. ‘Spintronics could lead to memory devices that don’t need power.’ Further applications are in medicine where highly sensitive detectors for biological samples could be made providing ‘a lab on a chip’.