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Headlines Published on 19 October 2007

Title Atomic roundabouts could be used for data storage

Scientists have discovered the existence of right- and left-handed magnetic vortices which they believe could lead to the design of faster and more efficient hard disks. Researchers at the University of Bonn, working in collaboration with colleagues in Berlin and Geneva, reported the results of their research in the journal Nature this month.

Dr Manfred Fiebig, who is leading the research. © Frank Luerweg / Uni Bonn
Dr Manfred Fiebig, who is leading the research.
© Frank Luerweg / Uni Bonn
The right- and left-handed magnetic vortices consist of an arrangement of magnetised atoms which form a pattern like a ring of bar magnets. The magnetised atoms don’t move around the atomic roundabout, but they can change direction according to the position of the poles. When the “north poles” are all pointing clockwise the magnetic vortex is “right-handed”, and when they are pointing anti-clockwise it is “left-handed”.

'The existence of a circular atomic traffic system of this sort has been presumed for several years,' says Dr Manfred Fiebig, who is leading the research. 'In the study for Nature we have actually discovered this kind of vortex field in a substance called lithium cobalt phosphate, and employed laser-optics to determine its direction.'

The research team — who alongside Dr Fiebig include the Dutch scientist Bas Van Aken and the Geneva-based physicists Hans Schmid and Jean Pierre Rivera — have called the atomic activity “ferrotoroidicity”.

As a scientific discovery, the phenomenon is highly interesting and could have practical applications in the future as a form of data storage. For example, when the atomic roundabout “traffic” goes right, this could be made to stand for the binary number “0”. When it goes left it could stand for “1”. It is possible that this principle could be introduced into the design of computer hard disks in the future.

'We now store data by magnetically poling the surface coating of a hard disk,' says Dr Fiebig. 'Today’s data storage device contains many billions of polable zones, ordered in rows. To write information onto them or read from them you have to have magnetic fields.'

Current data storage technology has two problems. To produce the necessary fields there must be a flow of electricity for which electrical charge carriers are actuated — a slow process. Also, with ever larger densities of data there is a danger that the magnetic field to be read can destroy the stored information. The atomic roundabouts don’t have these problems. The information is also stored magnetically, but the direction of rotation of the vortices can be changed by electrical fields. 'The reading process does not require a magnet field that might overwrite the stored data by mistake,' says Dr Fiebig. 'Also, no electricity has to flow to generate the electrical fields, so in principle, storage of data could take place much faster.'

More information:

  • University of Bonn
  • Europe’s Information Society on Europa

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