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Putting a New Spin on Electronics

Electronics are a way of life for most people.  Some remember gathering around a crackling radio filled with vacuum tubes or squinting at a black-and-white television set. Today, electronics bring us computers, video games, smart phones and high- definition TV. A new field called spintronics has emerged from the laboratory.

An international leader in the field of spintronics, Dr. Supriyo Bandyopadhyay directs the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Quantum Device Lab. He was recently named one of Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Science Museum of Virginia. This is the first of several articles on all of the 2016 Virginia Outstanding STEM Award winners.

Dr. Bandyopadhyay and his team have developed the next generation of spintronics, an offshoot they call straintronics. He and VCU have already received one patent for straintronics and another is near approval.

While electronics are based on the tiny electrical charge of electrons in a circuit, spintronics relies on the spin of electrons. The spin of an electron can be compared to the Earth’s spin as it rotates around the sun. Spinning makes an electron a tiny magnet with north and south poles. This effect opens a wide range of possibilities.

One advantage of spintronics over electronics is that magnets tend to stay magnetized, which allows a computer to retain all of the information put into it. There is no annoying boot-up time when the power is turned on. Also, spintronics does not require specialized semiconductor materials because it can work with common metals such as copper and aluminum. These circuits use less power than conventional electronics, can be made smaller, work faster and cost less.

Applications range from MRI scans, submarine detection and tracking, and extremely sensitive devices to detect earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, according to Dr. Bandyopadhyay.

“My research on spin-based computing has applications in extremely low power computing that result in tremendous amounts of energy saving,” he said.

Dr. Bandyopadhyay said that the even newer field of straintronics involves tiny magnetic devices that consume so little energy they can work without a battery by piggybacking on energy from cell phone networks, radio and TV signals or the wind. Medically implanted devices that never need new batteries could be created. Also possible are sensors mounted on tall buildings and bridges that would be powered by vibrations from wind or passing traffic as well as offshore buoy-mounted devices that draw their energy from ocean waves, he added.

Another important application is in quantum computing, a new field that allows calculations to be performed much faster than is possible with today’s most powerful supercomputers, Dr. Bandyopadhyay explained.

Click here for a transcript of the Science Matters report by 88.9 WCVE’s Inigo Howlett.