Use Magnetoelectric Chips to Power an All-New Generation of More Efficient Computing Devices

For more efficient computing, harness the power of fluorescent lights.

This property, which makes fluorescent lights buzz, could power new computer devices that store data using magnetic fields instead of electricity.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a material that is twice as magnetically restrictive and much less expensive than others in its class. It could be used to create better magnetic sensors for security, medical devices, and computing.

Magnetostriction is the phenomenon that causes fluorescent lights to go off and electrical transformers to buzz. It occurs when a material’s magnetic field and shape are linked. A shape change can cause a change in or magnetic field. This property could lead to the developing of new types of computing devices known as magnetoelectrics.

Magnetoelectric chips could reduce the power consumption of everything, from large data centers to mobile phones, and help mitigate global electricity demand.

The material is a mixture of iron and galium. It was described in a paper published in Nature Communication today. John Heron, U-M materials science & engineering professor and leader of the team, is joined by researchers from Intel, Cornell University, the University of California Berkeley; the University of Wisconsin; Purdue University, and others.

Magnetoelectric devices store digital data using magnetic fields and zeros in binary data instead of electricity. They expand and contract in response to tiny pulses of electricity, flipping their magnetic fields from positive to negative or vice-versa. They don’t need a constant stream of electricity like today’s chips. This means they only use a fraction of the energy.

Heron stated that finding materials with magnetic and electrical properties linked are critical to magnetoelectric devices working. “A chip with more magnetostriction can perform the same task with less energy.

Magnetoelectric devices that are ten times cheaper

Today’s magnetostrictive material mainly uses rare-earth elements. These are too expensive and scarce to use for computing devices in large quantities. Heron’s team discovered a way to get high levels of magnetostriction using inexpensive iron and galium.

Heron explained that the magnetostriction in iron-gallium alloys increases with more gallium. However, these increases eventually stop and decrease as higher levels of gallium form an ordered atomic structure.

The research team used low-temperature molecular beam epitaxy to freeze the atoms. This prevents them from forming ordered structures as more gallium is added. Heron and his colleagues could double the gallium content in the material. This resulted in a tenfold increase of magnetostriction over unmodified iron-gallium alloys.

Heron stated that low-temperature molecular beam epitaxy was a beneficial technique. It’s similar to spray painting with individual molecules. Testing the material’s magnetostrictive properties was also accessible by spray-painting it onto a surface that deforms slightly under voltage.

Researchers collaborate with Intel’s MESO Program.

The study’s magnetoelectric devices are several microns large, which is quite large for computing standards. The researchers are now working with Intel to shrink the machines to a size compatible with Intel’s magnetoelectric spin-orbit device (or MESO program). This will allow them to be more usable and make them compatible with the MESO program. One goal is to mainstream magnetoelectric devices.

Heron stated that Intel is an excellent company for scaling up and the nuts and bolts required to make a technology work on the small scale of computer chips. They are very invested in this project. We meet with them frequently to receive feedback and ideas about increasing the technology’s utility in the computer chips they call MESO

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