The New Material
The new material that has been engineered by researchers at Cornell University is a magnetoelectric multiferroic material, meaning that it combines magnetic and electrical properties without the need for supercooling. The material sandwiches layers of atoms whose magnetic orientation can be flipped from one direction to another (and back again) with the use of electrical currents.
False colour electron scanning image of the material. Image courtesy of Cornell University. Photo credit: Emily Ryan and Megan Holtz
This ability to change the magnetic properties of the atomic layers allows for permanent storage of binary data. The advantage of using magnetic orientation for data storage is that the memory is non-volatile and will retain its information even when there is now power.
Along with the material's non-volatile nature, the physical size of the memory arrangement could lead to considerably higher density of data storage. Other forms of permanent memory storage such as NAND and NOR flash are destructive which limits the number of write cycles that can be performed before the device fails.
Magnetic storage, however, is typically not destructive, which is why most large data storage techniques use magnetic hard disks. Therefore, it is this electronic control of the magnetic properties that has electronic engineers excited for such technology.
NAND flash memory: the floating gates cause small amounts of damage during write-cycles. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Cyferz [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
The new material is made by starting with atomically precise films of hexagonal lutetium iron oxide (LuFeO3). This material is a strong ferroelectric but exhibits weak magnetic capabilities.
Then, using a technique called “molecular-beam epitaxy”, engineers add an extra monolayer of iron oxide to every 10 repeats of the LuFeO3. This improves the magnetic properties of the material and allows the magnetic field to be controlled by low pulses of current.
But the most important aspect of the new magnetoelectric material that has been developed is that it operates at room temperature.
Room Temperature Super-Materials
Scientists have been hotly pursuing special materials at room temperatures for decades. There are many scientific properties, such as superconductive abilities, that can revolutionise the world—so why do we not see superconductors in everyday life?
The problem is that superconductor devices only operate at very low temperatures which can only be obtained by using very cold liquids such as liquid nitrogen and liquid helium. Therefore, these devices are only found in research laboratories and the high-tech equipment used by specialists (such as MRI scanners which are dependent on superconductors).
So imagine the implications if a room temperature superconductor were to be found. Room temperature superconductors could be made to be much smaller than current systems and so could be used in small devices such as cars, computers and even smartphones.
Maglev trains use superconductors for their electromagnetic levitation. Photo credit: Alex Needham.
Until now, most other multiferroic materials only operated at low temperatures, which limits their practical applications. But the fact that this new material operates at room temperature is a game changer for electronics and the semi-conductor industry.
The new multiferroic material responds to very small electrical pulses as compared to standard semi-conductor memory systems that rely on transistors and floating gates. This means that memory devices based on the multiferroic material would not only consume much less power but could also be much faster.
Low energy consumption in electronics is becoming increasingly important not just for user convenience but for energy consumption of the planet as a whole. Currently, the amount of power consumed by electronics worldwide is estimated to be 5% of all power use. It is projected that this 5% will increase to 40% or 50% by 2030.
Cornell's super material could work in tandem with greener methods of energy production.
If Cornell's new material can be mass produced and successfully used to store information, we may see a whole new line of memory storage options. Faster, lower power memory modules could provide consumers with faster booting machines, larger storage space for mobile devices, and lower power consumption which can increase battery life.
Other technologies such as NAND and NOR flash may be very quickly out-dated and considered ancient (especially when USB memory sticks get really warm after transferring files).
Given the huge amount of energy consumed on Earth—and the toll this consumption collectively takes on the environment—we could certainly do with some greener technologies.