A breakthrough in spintronics, the science behind modern magnetic hard drives, is set to revolutionise data storage and potentially open the door to hitherto unimagined forms of computing by introducing a new dimension to how data is processed.

Spintronics, which won its discoverers a Nobel prize in 2007, has had a revolutionary impact on computing, increasing the durability and capacity of data storage while reducing power consumption and so helping to drive many of the computational advances of the past few decades.

It makes use of the direction of spin of electrons, allowing data to be encoded and processed on thin films that have a single layer of nanoscale magnets that make up magnetic hard drives.

However, their limit is that data can only be processed across a single plane – the technology cannot send data across multiple layers. But a spintronics breakthrough published today in the journal Nature Materials changes this.

A team led by University of Glasgow physicists has successfully developed a way to pass information between layers of the nanoscale magnets, for the first time introducing a third dimension to this form of data processing and storage.

Spintronics breakthrough “bit like being given an extra note in a musical scale to play with”

The research expands the interactions between nanoscale magnets found in magnetic hard drives to neighbouring layers for the first time. This is achieved through a unique structure and tuning that creates magnetic configurations that allow the magnets not only to impact their neighbours on the same plane, but also those on a neighbouring layer.

And while this may seem unremarkable, the implications for computing are profound.

“It’s a bit like being given an extra note in a musical scale to play with – it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, not just for conventional information processing and storage, but potentially for new forms of computing we haven’t even thought of yet,” said Dr Amalio Fernandez-Pacheco, an EPSRC Early Career Fellow in the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

“The discovery of this new type of interaction between neighbour layers gives us a rich and exciting way to explore and exploit unprecedented 3D magnetic states in multi-layered nanoscale magnets.”

Read more: IBM is taking the long view on quantum computing

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