An integrated circuit

Skyrmion virtual particles could help solve data storage challenge

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Research conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has demonstrated that a solution to the upcoming data storage problems could be one step closer to reality, thanks to the behaviour of virtual particles known as skyrmions.

Skyrmions are tiny whorls in magnetic orientation, formed in magnetic materials such as thin metallic films. Despite their very recent discovery, they are already being touted as a possible means for continuing to improve data storage devices, despite predictions of the impending end of “Moore’s Law”.

Moore’s Law famously describes how data storage capacity doubles every two years, effectively doubling computational processing power in turn every two years, but could break down as the limits of conventional scaling with silicon are approached.

Physicists suggested that skyrmions could be used as the new basis for data storage if they could be manipulated using external electric fields. Skyrmions are very small – so far, more data can be stored in a surface of a given size – and very stable. This data could be held for long periods of time without the need for an additional supply of energy.

When skyrmions were first discovered, they were found to exist in random locations in magnetic materials. Now, Professor Geoffrey Beach, who was responsible for the discovery, and his colleagues have demonstrated that it is possible for these particles to be created in specific locations.

This is the key requirement to harness the virtual particles for use in data storage.

Professor Beach and his colleagues came across skyrmions when they studied the boundary region between atoms in a magnetic material. They found that these regions could be controlled by placing a sheet of nonmagnetic heavy metal close to the magnetic material. The nonmagnetic layer influences the magnetic one; its electric fields pushing up around the magnetic layer. Tiny vortices of magnetic orientation (skyrmions) appear randomly within these layers.

The researchers found that skyrmions can be created at specific locations by inserting defects into the magnetic layer: this ‘pins’ the virtual particles in place. In theory, surfaces with defects - rather than being problematic - can be used as a controllable surface for encoding data in the skyrmions.

According to Beach, this ability to control the formation of skyrmions was “one of the biggest missing pieces” to make skyrmions a practical possibility for data storage.

Skyrmion-based data storage is still some way from becoming a reality: the X-ray magnetic spectroscopy used by researchers to read the data requires complex, expensive equipment. The MIT team is pursuing the development of a miniaturised, efficient system for reading data, in order to push skyrmion-based data storage closer to being a reality.

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