A million times faster

ICONN, Media releases

A radical new kind of computer memory will be a million times faster than existing hard-drives, a leading expert in the field of nanotechnology announced today in Sydney.

It will use nanotechnology to manipulate data like cars on tiny racetracks.

Many IT researchers have predicted the end of Moore’s Law – which essentially says that computers will double in speed every two years. They’ve told us we’ll need light or quantum computers.

But Dr Stuart Parkin, an experimental physicist at IBM in San Jose, California, is performing miracles with more conventional electronics. He told the ICONN conference that the “racetrack memory” chips he and his team are developing will be dramatically faster, more powerful and more reliable than today’s hard disks.

“We want to replace the entire disk drive with a chip that is solid state,” Dr Parkin says. “Basically it’s a disk drive on a chip. It would be entirely reliable, a million times faster and use a lot less energy.”

To make the new racetrack memory, Dr Parkin’s team uses nanotechnology to build a forest of tiny metal wires that stand up from a silicon wafer.  “You store the data in the magnetic nanowires,” he says, “and you bring the data up and down the tracks like race-cars.”

The data itself is encoded using a new form of technology called “spintronics”, which uses one of the fundamental properties of electrons, known as spin.

Dr Parkin’s team has already transformed computing once before with a combination of spintronics and nanotechnology. About a decade ago they developed a new kind of hard disk reader called a “spin-valve” or magnetic tunnelling junction.

These readers, made up of metallic sandwiches built from layers of single atoms, increased the storage capacity of hard drives 1000-fold.

Most digital data today, such as the information that makes up the internet, is stored in these magnetic hard disk drives. But their rotating disks and moving read/write heads make these drives unreliable and slow. Crashes happen relatively often, sometimes resulting in the catastrophe of lost data.

It can also take these drives up to 10 milliseconds to read the first bit of requested data. “In computers, 10 milliseconds is an eon,” Dr Parkin says. “A modern processor can perform 20 million operations in that time.”

That’s why computers also use a second type of storage, solid-state memory, for actually doing their computational operations. Solid-state memories read and write data with great speed, but they have their own problems, losing data when the computer powers down or crashes.

A third kind of memory can retain data when the power is off. This is used in smart phones and other handheld devices, but there is a trade-off between cost and performance. The cheapest of this kind of memory is a kind called flash memory, which is the basis of flash drives. But there are problems with this kind of memory, too, as it is slow and unreliable in comparison with other memory chips, and becomes unusable relatively quickly.

Racetrack memory could overcome all these problems and, in doing so, transform the computing world, Dr Parkin says. “It will put a greater richness of information at your fingertips.” It could also make computers themselves cheaper and more robust, he says.

Over the past three or four years, Dr Parkin’s group have shown in principle that their nanotech racetrack chips work. He estimates that it could take another five to eight years before a product will be ready for manufacturing.

Looking even further ahead, Dr Parkin will tell the conference about a more futuristic idea he has for using spintronics to build what he calls a “brain in a box” that uses spintronics to mimic the way human brain cells are connected.

“It’s possible that we could build computers that might think like the brain,” he said. “But that’s a very long way off.”

“Stuart Parkin and his team’s remarkable work is a great demonstration of nanotechnology in action,” says Prof. Andrew Dzurak, ICONN co-chair and director of the Semiconductor Nanofabrication Facility at UNSW.

Background: about Stuart Parkin

Stuart Parkin, Ph.D., is an experimental physicist, IBM Fellow and manager of the magnetoelectronics group at IBM Research – Almaden in San Jose, California. He is also a consulting professor in the Department of Applied Physics at Stanford University and director of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center, which was formed in 2004.

Dr Parkin, a pioneer in the science and application of spintronic materials, made discoveries into the behavior of thin-film magnetic structures that were critical in enabling recent increases in the data density and capacity of computer hard-disk drives. His discovery of oscillatory interlayer coupling in magnetic multilayers and giant magnetoresistance in sputter deposited magnetic metallic heterostructures in 1989 led to IBM’s development of the spin-valve read head, which enabled a more than 1,000-fold increase in magnetic hard disk drive data density.

Dr Parkin also proposed using magnetic tunneling junction storage elements to create a high performance magnetic random access memory in 1995. MRAM promises unique attributes of high speed, high density and non-volatility. The development by Dr Parkin in 2001 of giant tunneling magnetoresistance in magnetic tunnel junctions using highly textured MgO tunnel barriers has made MRAM even more promising. IBM developed the first MRAM prototype in 1999 and is currently developing a 16 Mbit chip.

Most recently, Dr Parkin has proposed and is working on a novel storage class memory device, The Magnetic Racetrack, which could replace both hard disk drives and many forms of conventional solid state memory. His research interests also include spin transistors and spin-logic devices that may enable a new generation of low-power electronics.

A native of Watford, England, Dr Parkin received his B.A. (1977) and was elected a Research Fellow (1979) at Trinity College, Cambridge, England, and was awarded his Ph.D. (1980) at the Cavendish Laboratory, also in Cambridge. He joined IBM in 1982 as a World Trade Post-doctoral Fellow, becoming a permanent member of the staff the following year. In 1999 he was named an IBM Fellow, IBM’s highest technical honor.

Dr Parkin’s research interests include organic superconductors, high-temperature superconductors, and, most recently, magnetic thin film structures and spintronic materials and devices for advanced sensor, memory, and logic applications. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the American Physical Society, the Materials Research Society, the Institute of Physics (London), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Parkin is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Johannes Gutenberg Researcher Award (2008), Humboldt Research Award (2004), the 1999-2000 American Institute of Physics Prize for Industrial Applications of Physics, the European Physical Society’s Hewlett- Packard Europhysics Prize (1997), the American Physical Society’s International New Materials Prize (1994), the MRS Outstanding Young Investigator Award (1991) and the Charles Vernon Boys Prize from the Institute of Physics, London (1991). In 2001, he was named R&D Magazine’s first Innovator of the Year and in October 2007 was awarded the Economist Magazine’s “No Boundaries” Award for Innovation.

In 2007 Dr Parkin was named a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore, a Visiting Chair Professor at the National Taiwan University, an Honorary Visiting Professor at University College London, The United Kingdom and the first Distinguished Research Chair Professor, Graduate School of Materials Science, National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, Douliou, Taiwan. In 2008 Dr Parkin was appointed a Visiting Professor, KAIST, Korea under the Korean Government’s WCU (World Class University) Program and the first Distinguished Visiting Professor, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands. In 2008, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and received the IEEE Daniel E. Noble Award for his work on MRAM as well as the IEEE Distinguished Lecturer Award. In July 2009 he received the IUPAP Magnetism Prize and Neel Medal for outstanding contributions to the science of magnetism, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In January 2010, Dr Parkin received the 2009 Dresden Barkhausen Award. Dr Parkin has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Aachen, Germany and the Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands. Parkin has authored more than 375 papers and has more than 82 issued patents.