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Can a Dot Vastly Improve Magnetic Storage?

Magnetic tapes and hard disks have been used as computer data storage for around seventy years. New technologies have cropped up since them, and many continue to be developed, but it’s a medium that continues to be a good choice for archiving due to how long it lasts and the low cost.

However, when it comes to random access memories, magnetic storage isn’t up to scratch. It has low write speeds and high energy consumption, which means that it doesn’t do the job for processing memory data in a computer.

Researchers have now developed a new way to overcome these problems that magnetic storage suffers from. Pietro Gambardella, professor at the materials department of ETH Zurich, and his team have been able to create a technique that allows for faster magnetic storage with minimal energy waste.

Standard magnetic data storage uses tape or disk data carriers which are coated with a cobalt alloy. A magnetic field is produced by a coil carrying a current, which then changes the direction of the magnetisation in a small section of this data carrier. It’s a slow process when you compare it against modern processors and the resistance of the coils creates energy loss. As such, it would be more suitable to skip using magnetic coils and directly change the magnetisation.

The researchers discovered a new technique that could achieve that. An electric current is passed through a coated semiconductor film, which then inverts the magnetisation in a small metal dot. A technique called spin-orbit-torque achieves this, which is where the electron spins to create a magnetic field that changes nearby material properties.

Through various further studies, they were able to see that the inversion of magnetisation occurred in less than one nanosecond, which is much faster than any other technique. They increased the frequency of the pulses and saw no reduction in the quality of inversion, which gives them hope for their technology’s further application.

They would now like to make their inversion process work even quicker and using smaller currents. This could involve adjusting the shape of the dot – it’s currently circular, but perhaps other shapes like a diamond could make the inversion process more efficient. It’s something they’re going to continue looking into; an outcome of which might mean that operating system boot times become a thing of the past. Program memory could remain within RAM even when the power is switched off, which would be a game changer for data storage.

Whether magnetic storage continues to be so prevalent in the future remains to be seen. New technologies are always being researched and the data market is changing so quickly now, thanks to, in part, the huge amounts of data that is now being produced. It’s no longer just regular computers that produce data – now nearly every modern appliance does, and it’s a rush to try and find a solution that can cater for the capacity, durability and speed demands that these need.


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