A newly discovered particle called a skyrmion will revolutionize data storage, and more, according to scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the UK.
The skyrmion is so small and they can be packed so closely together that a laptop comptuter’s hard drive could be shrunk to the size of a peanut, or an iPod’s drive to the size of a grain of rice.
Skyrmions are more stable and less power-hungry than their cousins. They can be used to store data in ultra compact media, and eventually lead to faster computers that can process information faster and store more of it. Smaller and smaller devices will be able to be made with the same computing power as a desktop computer
Kristen von Bergmann and her colleagues, led by Roland Wiesendanger at the University of Hamburg in Germany, the discoverers of skyrmions, report their findings in today’s issue of Science.
What are skyrmions and how did they get their name?
In 1962, the British physicist Tony Skyrme first theorized about the particle’s existence. Skyrmions are tiny magnetic fields that surround groups of atoms.
Magnetic fields are the basis for data storage. are magnetic fields. The spinning electrons inside the atoms in ordinary magnets all line up the same way, and that’s what makes the magnetic field. Those fields, embedded into a metal alloy, are what make up the 1s and 0s, the bits, that are computer data.
However, some space between them are necessary in order for the magnetic fields to function well. If they are placed too close together, the magnetic fields start to “stick” to each other, which ruins the data.
By contrast, the spinning electrons inside skyrmion particles point in different directions, making it far more difficult for the magnetic fields to stick together when they get too close to each other. Kristen von Bergmann and her colleagues found that they could space the skyrmion bits just six nanometers apart. The best magnetic drives have bits spaced about 25 nanometers apart.
The more tightly packed bits that are now possible to achieve could translate into a hard drive for an iPod Classic shrinking from about two inches across to length of a grain of rice.
How are skyrmions made?
The researchers made the skyrmions by placing a two-atom-thin film of palladium and iron into a magnetic field and cooling it to nearly absolute zero.
When they did this, skyrmions immediately appeared on the film. The researchers then fired a beam of electrons at the film, which resulted in the electrons annihilating the skyrmions. When they fired that same kind of current at the film again, the skyrmions reappeared.
The technique involved using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and a polarized current to force groups of atoms into knot-like twisted configurations.
Skyrmions resist unraveling, and so they can be theoretically used to store zeros (untwisted) or ones (twisted), the key to storing data digitally.
The action, the researchers discovered, was similar to reading and writing data onto a magnetic film. The presence of a skyrmion counted as a “1” and its absence counted as a “0.”
Making a practical data storage device using skyrmions
The next step, after the scientists found out that it’s possible to read and write data using skyrmions, is to make a practical storage device to contain the skyrmions.
According to von Bergman, the difficult part will be locating materials that can make skyrmions at room temperature. Doing this would make skrymions even more stable than their counterparts, which are currently used.The very quality that enables the skymions to be placed closer together than their counterparts without interference also makes them less affected by heat. This is a typical problem of magnetic drives, which wouldn’t affect skyrmion-based drives as much.
Avadh Saxena, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, notes that besides skyrmion-based electronics being smaller and more stable, they’d use less power. The skyrmions, by contrast, require 100,000 times less power to manipulate than magnetic fields on a hard dive.
Also, researchers didn’t need to use any exotic substances for the magnetic film. Ulrich Rössler, a physicist at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden, Germany, said: “It’s exciting that they used relatively conventional materials.”
Scientists are excited about the discovery of the skyrmions. These new particles will, ultimately, revolutionize media storage and are sure to be used in many of the electronic deices we buy which we’ve found we can’t do without, like cell phones, GPS devices, personal computers, and our cars.
Written by: Douglas Cobb