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Study opens route to ultra-low-power microchips

A new approach to controlling magnetism in a microchip could open the doors to memory, computing and sensing devices that consume drastically less power than existing versions. The approach could also overcome some of the inherent physical limitations that have been slowing progress in this area until now. National Science Foundation-funded researchers have demonstrated that they can control the magnetic properties of a thin-film material simply by applying a small voltage. Changes in magnetic orientation made in this way remain in their new state without the need for any ongoing power, unlike today's standard memory chips, the team has found. As silicon microchips draw closer to fundamental physical limits that could cap their ability to continue increasing their capabilities while decreasing their power consumption, researchers have been exploring a variety of new technologies that might get around these limits. One of the promising alternatives is an approach called spintronics, which makes use of a property of electrons called spin, instead of their electrical charge. Because spintronic devices can retain their magnetic properties without the need for constant power, which silicon memory chips require, they need far less power to operate. They also generate far less heat -- another major limiting factor for today's devices.

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