By James Walsh, MMTA
Scientists have developed a new material that has the potential to lead to a new generation of computing devices, by packing in more power while at the same time consuming a fraction of the energy compared to today’s devices.
The work was undertaken by researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory and Cornell University, N.Y.
The new material “sandwiches” together individual layers of atoms to produce a thin film with magnetic polarity that can be flipped between positive and negative with small pulses of electricity. The benefit of this property is that it can be turned into 0’s and 1’s, or binary which underpins computing devices. This could open the door to ultralow-power microprocessors, storage devices, and next generation electronics.
The new material uses lutetium iron oxide (LuFeO3), a robust ferroelectric but not strongly magnetic, created in thin films consisting of alternating layers of lutetium oxide and iron oxide. To make the material unique, they added one extra monolayer of iron oxide every 10 atomic repeats (layers). This extra addition dramatically changed the material’s properties and a strongly ferromagnetic layer was produced near room temperature.
Darrell Schlom, a materials science and engineering professor at Cornell University, describes the process as “spray painting individual atoms of iron, lutetium and oxygen to build up the new atomic structure, exhibiting the stronger magnetic properties.”
Electronics are the fastest growing consumer of energy worldwide, currently consuming around 5% of global energy production. This is projected to grow to 40-50% by 2030 at the current pace if there are no major advances in the field that lead lower energy consumption.
Researchers have increasingly sought alternatives to semiconductor-based electronics over the past decade as the increases in speed and density of microprocessors come at the expense of greater demands on electricity and hotter circuits. This is why room-temperature multiferroics are a hotly pursued goal as they require much less power to read and write data than today’s semiconductors. Those properties could make possible, devices that require only brief pulses of electricity instead of the constant stream needed for current electronics, using an estimated 100 times less energy.
Lutetium is a silvery white metal that appears at the far end of the lanthanoid group of the periodic table.
It has the highest atomic weight, density and melting point (1663oC/3025oF) of the rare earth elements (REEs).
Its name is derived from the Latin for Paris – Lutetia— and it was discovered in 1907 by Georges Urbain in Paris, France and independently by Charles James in New Hampshire, USA.
It is sourced as a by-product of yttrium, among other REEs in very small quantities, recovered by ion-exchange with great difficulty.
Because lutetium is difficult to produce, it is expensive, and hence there are few commercial uses. However, it is used for niche applications such as dating meteorites, and as a radionuclide in cancer treatment. It is also used as a catalyst for cracking hydrocarbons in oil refineries.
Although a viable multiferroic device like this is likely to be several years off, this achievement brings the field closer to its goal of creating devices that continue the computing industry’s speed improvements while consuming less power and also proving Moore’s Law once again.
A paper on the work was published in the September 22nd issue of Nature