New MIT research study explores spintronics for ultra-low-power microchips
A new research study from MIT and Brookhaven National Laboratory claims to have potentially opened the door for ultra-low power microchips – which could be good news with regard to the Internet of Things.
The focus of the study is around spintronics – a portmanteau of spin transport electronics – which explores the intrinsic spin of an electron in terms of performance rather than its electrical charge, meaning they can retrain their magnetic properties without constant power.
While a fascinating concept – this time last year Seeker called it “the technology revolution you’ve probably never heard of” – it has its limitations in terms of computational devices.
Being able to control the magnetic properties of a material electrically, and make the most of the spin, has proven a major challenge. One approach focused on ions – specifically oxygen ions – rather than electrons. However, while the resulting change in magnetic properties was significant, it led to the material growing and reducing in size. As a result, the mechanical damage this caused rendered it practically useless in a real-life case.
This is where the MIT and Brookhaven research comes in. Instead of oxygen, the researchers used hydrogen ions, and found both increased speed and no degradation of the material after 2,000 cycles.
“Using hydrogen insertion to control magnetism is not new, but being able to do that in a voltage-driven way, in a solid-state device, with good impact on the magnetic properties – that is pretty significant,” said Chris Leighton, professor at the University of Minnesota. “At the end of the day, controlling any type of materials function by literally flipping a switch is pretty exciting.
“Being able to do that quickly enough, over enough cycles, in a general way, would be a fantastic advance for science and engineering,” Leighton added.
Those at the coalface of the IoT have put together a multitude of pilots, tests and research around achieving lower power consumption, whether at the network, sensor, or chip level. Efforts such as LPWAN, LoRa, and Bluetooth Low Energy are evident here. As Martin Keenan, technical manager at Avnet Abacus, put it when writing for this publication in September, LPWAN is “one of the darker horses in the IoT stable” currently, but “there is about to be much more noise about it.”
Last month Atmosic Technologies, a startup based in California, launched ultra-low power chip platforms which would aim to enable IoT devices to be ‘forever connected, anywhere.’ “When Wi-Fi was in its infancy, we never envisioned it would become the pervasive communication that connects billions of individuals and devices,” said David Su, CEO of Atmosic at the time. “[The] M2 and M3 series launch marks a big step toward achieving forever battery life.”
Engaging hydrogen ions is not MIT’s only low power chip project on the go. In February, MIT researchers built a new chip, which was hardwired to perform public-key encryption, which consumes only 1/400 as much power as previously, as well as only using a tenth of the memory and executing 500 times faster. The development again could have ramifications for the IoT, in that embedded sensors do not have the energy and memory space to execute encryption protocols.
You can find out more about the ultra-low-power microchips study here.
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