U.Va. Launches New Spinquest Center for Nanotech Research

Sept. 12, 2006 -- Everyday appliances, such as blenders and toasters, depend on conventional electronics, which are based on the electrical charge of electrons. But a new center at the University of Virginia is pursuing research into an emerging field, dubbed “spintronics,” which is based on the spin, rather than the charge, of electrons.

Launched this summer at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the SpinQuest Center will support interdisciplinary research into the spin of electrons and explore ways to harness that phenomenon to take information processing to the next level. As one of the University’s nanotechnology initiatives, the center will support numerous research and development programs in the coming years, according to Stuart Wolf, founder and director of the center and a U.Va. professor with a joint appointment in physics and materials science and engineering.

“Through the SpinQuest Center, we will be able to gather scientists from around the University — in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, materials science and engineering — to collaborate on interdisciplinary research that promises to push back the current boundaries of information technology,” Wolf said. “Our goals are to be able to do more data processing faster, at a lower level of power usage and at a lower cost. This work has the potential of enabling truly revolutionary advances in the field of information technology.”

SpinQuest — the name comes from “Spins in Quantum Electronic Systems and Technology” — will focus initially on three main research tracks:

1) Research needed to continue the expansion of memory capacity in a new MRAM (pronounced M-ram: magnetic random access memory) microchip that could eventually replace DRAM (pronounced D-ram: dynamic random access memory) microchips used in computer memory and FLASH memory used in cameras, cell phones, I-Pods and other consumer electronics. Because MRAM is “nonvolatile,” information isn’t lost when the power is turned off, while the DRAM needs its power constantly refreshed and FLASH operates relatively slowly, Wolf said. Not only is the MRAM faster than the DRAM and much faster than FLASH, but it requires considerably less power to function, he said.

2) Research needed to develop a spintronic logic device. MRAM is strictly a memory chip now. It would be a major achievement to combine both memory and logic functions on the same chip, Wolf said.

3) Research needed to create the infrastructure necessary to build quantum information systems. Semiconductors using conventional electronics are based on Boolean algebra — Boolean bits are either 0 or 1. In contrast, quantum information systems are based on quantum theory, which holds that quantum bits — dubbed qubits (and pronounced Q-bits) — are not just 0 or 1, but have an infinite number of possible states. Spin electronics, or spintronics, utilize the constant “spin up” and “spin down” motion of electrons to process and store information. Eventually, manufacturing processes would need to be redesigned to build quantum information systems.

To pursue these research tracks, U.Va. scientists will seek support from various sources. Already, funding for the first two projects has been received from the Department of Defense’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative and U.Va.’s Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology Partnership.

Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative

The U.S. Department of Defense sponsors the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative to support research projects involving more than one field of science and/or engineering. Under this funding program, researchers at six universities — the University of California-Santa Barbara, Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University, the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota and U.Va. — have received support for a joint, five-year, $5 million project to develop a way to combine memory and logic functions on the same conventional microchip.

David Awschalom, professor of physics at UC-Santa Barbara, is the principal investigator for the project. At U.Va., Wolf and his colleague, Robert Hull, professor of materials science, are co-PIs for the MURI project. U.Va.’s contribution to the project, funded at $500,000, will involve the development of the memory storage element and some contributions to the integration of the logic and memory elements, Wolf said.

Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology Partnership

The University’s Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology Partnership, supported by the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, has awarded $20,000 to a spintronics project, sponsored jointly by the University and the Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

The principal investigators for the project, “Electron and Ferromagnetic Resonance Studies of Novel Magnetic Oxides and Nitrides for Use in Spintronic Devices,” the only one funded this year by FEST-P, are Wolf at U.Va. and András Jánossy and György Mihály at BUTE.

The researchers, who are seeking to increase the magnetism of magnetic oxides and nitrides, will investigate whether it is more effective to treat the materials with electricity or with magnets. U.Va. will prepare material samples and BUTE will run tests on them using electron paramagnetic resonance and ferromagnetic resonance to determine their fundamental magnetic properties. Students from BUTE will spend a month at U.Va. assisting in the materials preparation and U.Va. students will spend a month in Budapest helping with the resonance studies. 

Stuart Wolf

Wolf is a condensed-matter physicist who worked as a civilian for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., for 31 years, until retiring in 2003. For 10 years, he was assigned to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a program manager. He supervised a number of programs there, including some in “spintronics,” (SPIN-TRansport-electrONICS), a term he coined while at DARPA. He was hired by U.Va. as a research professor in 2003 and received tenure in October 2004 — a full professorship, with a joint appointment in physics and materials science and engineering — and in August 2005 became a teaching professor here.

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University's highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering, and nanotechnology. For more information, visit www.seas.virginia.edu.

For more information, call Charlotte Crystal at (434) 924-6858 or contact her by email at ccrystal@virginia.edu.