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Icons of Progress

The Application of Spintronics

IBM100 The Application of Spintronics iconic mark

The discovery and application by IBM researcher Stuart Parkin and his colleagues of a “spin valve”—essentially the capability to alter the magnetic state of materials at the atomic level—changed the landscape of magnetic data storage by dramatically increasing storage capacity. This helped pave the way for some of today’s most popular devices and online applications.

The word spintronics—short for spin electronics—was coined in the 1990s to describe devices that take advantage of “spin,” a quantum-mechanical property of an electron that takes only two values: spin-up and spin-down. Spintronics research flowered following the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance (GMR) effect in the late 1980s. IBM Almaden Research Center researchers realized that GMR could be used to make more sensitive hard disk drive read heads.

Parkin discovered the fundamental underlying spintronics phenomena that made the spin valve a reality while researching novel properties of superlattices formed from combinations of various magnetic and non-magnetic materials based on flowing charge currents through these superlattices. By working at the atomic scale, he discovered that by sandwiching a non-magnetic layer of material between two magnetic layers, where each of the layers was just a few atoms thick, and by applying small magnetic fields, the current flowing through the sandwich could significantly be changed. The reason was that within the magnetic layers, the electrical current, which was composed of negatively charged electrons, became “spin-polarized”: all the electrons’ spins became oriented either “up” or “down,” depending on the magnetic orientation of these layers—just like nanoscopic compass needles, which point to either the North or South Pole. Small magnetic fields reorient these compass needles. This effectively created the ability to turn the “spin-polarized” current on or off—just like a valve.

The spin valve also created the ability to detect more minute magnetic impulses when flown over a magnetic hard drive. This ability allowed for vastly more data to be written to and stored on a hard drive than was possible before the discovery of GMR.

The first use of spin-valve sensors in hard disk drive read heads was in the IBM ® Deskstar 16GP Titan, which was released in late 1997 with 16.8 GB of storage. Now, every single hard disk drive on the market—many ranging up to terabytes and more of storage—features a read head based on Parkin’s discoveries. Today, though, the read head no longer uses GMR but something called giant tunneling magnetoresistance, based on different physics that are still spintronic.

These huge increases in storage capacity made possible the evolution of giant data centers in the “cloud.” Perhaps most importantly, the ability to store and access huge amounts of data in worldwide networks helped create the information-based world of today.

In 2005 alone, the amount of data that could be stored by all the spin-valve-enabled hard drives sold equaled all of the analog data available in the world at that time—approximately 100 exabytes.

Since 2007, the basic spin valve has evolved to a related thin-layered structure—magnetic tunnel junction—that displays giant tunneling magnetoresistance (TMR), a phenomenon where electrons tunnel through a thin insulator. The non-magnetic layer in a GMR spin valve has been replaced by this insulator, which, when formed from “magnesium oxide,” is a spin filter that only allows electrons of one spin direction through it, like a gatekeeper. The current that flows through magnesium oxide is composed of electrons that are almost 100 percent spin-up or spin-down, depending on the magnetic orientation of the surrounding magnetic layers. This means the TMR signal is much larger than that from a GMR spin valve: indeed it is almost 100 times larger. TMR is also the basis of magnetic random access memory (MRAM), a new type of non-volatile memory that uses magnetic moments to retain data instead of electrical charges.

Stuart Parkin is now leading a team of IBM researchers in studying Racetrack Memory, a radically different non-volatile memory technology proposed by Parkin in 2004 that is based on a recently discovered spintronics phenomena. Racetrack memory uses currents of spin-oriented electrons to “move” magnetic regions along magnetic racetracks—nanoscopic magnetic wires. Racetrack memory is one of a number of new technologies being explored that could offer higher storage density than comparable devices such as flash memory, and eventually replace disk drives with a solid-state memory device.

Throughout its history, IBM has collaborated with external entities, including universities, organizations and other corporations to advance research in a variety of technologies. In 2004, the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center (SpinAps) was established in California. Within SpinAps, scientists and engineers from IBM Almaden Research Center are working together with Stanford faculty, students and post-doctoral fellows to study the theoretical and practical fundamentals of spintronics, and to develop advanced technologies built on those fundamentals.

Spintronics may also enable the leap to quantum computing where units of quantum information known as “qubits” can occupy spin-up and spin-down states simultaneously, and so allow for massive increases in computational power.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Dr. Stuart Parkin IBM Fellow, manager of the Magnetoelectronics group at the IBM Almaden Research Center, co-director of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center
  • Dr. Stuart A. Wolf Program manager at DARPA; coined the term spintronics in 1996
  • Dr. James S. Harris Co-director of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center; James and Ellenor Chesebrough Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department of Stanford University
  • Dr. Schoucheng Zhang Co-director of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center; J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor in Physics at Stanford University
  • Dr. David J. Smith Regents’ Professor of Physics at Arizona State University