By manipulating matter at the nanoscale level, engineers from North Carolina State University led by Dr. Jagdish Narayan have developed a new material that could make it possible to manufacture terabyte memory chips the size of a fingernail, boost vehicles' fuel economy significantly and reduce heat dissipated by semiconductors, with applications ranging from spintronics to solar panel technology.

Using doping - a common technique in electronics manufacturing in which impurities are added to a material to modify its electrical properties - the researchers added metal nickel to magnesium oxide, a ceramic. By tweaking a few parameters, the resulting material can exhibit different magnetic behaviors, ranging from ferromagnetic (forming a permanent magnet) to paramagnetic (becoming magnetic only in the presence of an external magnetic field).


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The material, Ni-MgO, contains clusters of nickel atoms that are ten square nanometers in size, which is just one tenth the area that standard manufacturing techniques can achieve today. Smaller areas are crucial in being able to manufacture higher-density memory chips: the researchers estimated in fact that, using their material, it could be possible to obtain a 50-fold improvement in information density storage, with as much as one terabyte (1,024GB) stored on a single memory chip the size of a fingernail.

But information storage is not the only area that could benefit from the team's findings: by introducing metallic properties into a ceramic material like magnesium, engineers could one day develop a new generation of ceramic engines able to achieve fuel efficiencies approaching 80 miles per gallon. This is all made possible by the material's good thermal conductivity, which could also be harnessed in areas like solar power generation, where it's important not to dissipate energy as heat during the various phases of the conversion of light to electric power.

The researchers were also able to control the electronic spin within the material, which could prove extremely helpful to spintronics, an emerging technology that harnesses both the spin and electric charge of electrons to store and manipulate digital information faster and more efficiently than standard electronics.

The research, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, was carried out by Dr. Narayan, research associate Dr. Sudhakar Nori, former NC State graduate student Shankar Ramachandran and professor of materials science and engineering J.T. Prater. Their findings were published on the June edition of JOM, the journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society.