A group of researchers led by the University of Michigan have developed a new material for magnetoelectric devices. They claim that the material is twice as magnetorestrictive, more energy efficient and less costly than others in its category.
Magnetoelectric devices store data with magnetic fields instead of electricity. One of their primary properties is magnetorestriction, which occurs when a material’s shape and magnetic field are linked. If the material’s shape changes, so does its magnetic field. Magnetorestriction is what causes fluorescent lamps and electrical transformers to hum.
Using this property to develop magnetoelectric chips, the researchers say, could “slash the electricity requirements of the world’s computing infrastructure” and improve the energy efficiency of everything from “massive data centres to cell phones”. This is because they don’t require a steady stream of electricity like other chips.
Prof John Heron, the research lead, said: “A key to making magnetoelectric devices work is finding materials whose electrical and magnetic properties are linked. And more magnetostriction means that a chip can do the same job with less energy.”
Heron and his team’s new material combines iron and gallium. These offer a less expensive and more abundant alternative to the rare-earth elements typically required for magnetorestrictive materials.
To create their magnetorestrictive iron-gallium material, the researchers used a process call low-temperature molecular-beam epitaxy. This technique meant they could add more gallium to the material and, ultimately, achieve a ten-fold increase in magnetorestriction compared with other iron-gallium alloys that hadn’t been modified in this way.
“It’s a little bit like spray painting with individual atoms,” Heron explained. “And ‘spray painting’ the material onto a surface that deforms slightly when a voltage is applied also made it easy to test its magnetostrictive properties.”
Heron and his team’s magnetoelectric devices are large by current computing standards, measuring several microns. They are working with Intel on shrinking them down to more usable sizes.
Their paper, published in Nature Communications, says that a device using the researchers’ material is still decades away. However, the team has filed for patent protection and says that in addition to their potential for computing, the magnoelectric chips could also lead to better magnetic sensors for medical and security devices.
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