Spintronics (a neologism meaning "spin transport electronics"), also known as magnetoelectronics, is an emerging technology that exploits the intrinsic spin of the electron and its associated magnetic moment, in addition to its fundamental electronic charge, in solid-state devices.
The research field of spintronics emerged from experiments on spin-dependent electron transport phenomena in solid-state devices done in the 1980s, including the observation of spin-polarized electron injection from a ferromagnetic metal to a normal metal by Johnson and Silsbee (1985), and the discovery of giant magnetoresistance independently by Albert Fert et al. and Peter Grünberg et al. (1988). The origins can be traced back further to the ferromagnet/superconductor tunneling experiments pioneered by Meservey and Tedrow, and initial experiments on magnetic tunnel junctions by Julliere in the 1970s. The use of semiconductors for spintronics can be traced back at least as far as the theoretical proposal of a spin field-effect-transistor by Datta and Das in 1990.
Electrons are spin-1/2 fermions and therefore constitute a two-state system with spin "up" and spin "down". To make a spintronic device, the primary requirements are a system that can generate a current of spin-polarized electrons comprising more of one spin species—up or down—than the other (called a spin injector), and a separate system that is sensitive to the spin polarization of the electrons (spin detector). Manipulation of the electron spin during transport between injector and detector (especially in semiconductors) via spin precession can be accomplished using real external magnetic fields or effective fields caused by spin-orbit interaction.
Spin polarization in non-magnetic materials can be achieved either through the Zeeman effect in large magnetic fields and low temperatures, or by non-equilibrium methods. In the latter case, the non-equilibrium polarization will decay over a timescale called the "spin lifetime". Spin lifetimes of conduction electrons in metals are relatively short (typically less than 1 nanosecond) but in semiconductors the lifetimes can be very long (microseconds at low temperatures), especially when the electrons are isolated in local trapping potentials (for instance, at impurities, where lifetimes can be milliseconds).
Metals-based spintronic devices
The simplest method of generating a spin-polarised current in a metal is to pass the current through a ferromagnetic material. The most common application of this effect is a giant magnetoresistance (GMR) device. A typical GMR device consists of at least two layers of ferromagnetic materials separated by a spacer layer. When the two magnetization vectors of the ferromagnetic layers are aligned, the electrical resistance will be lower (so a higher current flows at constant voltage) than if the ferromagnetic layers are anti-aligned. This constitutes a magnetic field sensor.
Two variants of GMR have been applied in devices: (1) current-in-plane (CIP), where the electric current flows parallel to the layers and (2) current-perpendicular-to-plane (CPP), where the electric current flows in a direction perpendicular to the layers.
Other metals-based spintronics devices:
• Tunnel Magnetoresistance (TMR), where CPP transport is achieved by using quantum-mechanical tunneling of electrons through a thin insulator separating ferromagnetic layers.
• Spin Torque Transfer, where a current of spin-polarized electrons is used to control the magnetization direction of ferromagnetic electrodes in the device.
Motorola has developed a 1st generation 256 kb MRAM based on a single magnetic tunnel junction and a single transistor and which has a read/write cycle of under 50 nanoseconds (Everspin, Motorola's spin-off, has since developed a 4 Mbit version). There are two 2nd generation MRAM techniques currently in development: Thermal Assisted Switching (TAS) which is being developed by Crocus Technology, and Spin Torque Transfer (STT) on which Crocus, Hynix, IBM, and several other companies are working.
Another design in development, called Racetrack memory, encodes information in the direction of magnetization between domain walls of a ferromagnetic metal wire.
Semiconductor-based spintronic devices
Ferromagnetic semiconductor sources (like manganese-doped gallium arsenide GaMnAs), increase the interface resistance with a tunnel barrier, or using hot-electron injection.
Spin detection in semiconductors is another challenge, which has been met with the following techniques:
• Faraday/Kerr rotation of transmitted/reflected photons
• Circular polarization analysis of electroluminescence
• Nonlocal spin valve (adapted from Johnson and Silsbee's work with metals)
• Ballistic spin filtering
The latter technique was used to overcome the lack of spin-orbit interaction and materials issues to achieve spin transport in silicon, the most important semiconductor for electronics.
Because external magnetic fields (and stray fields from magnetic contacts) can cause large Hall effects and magnetoresistance in semiconductors (which mimic spin-valve effects), the only conclusive evidence of spin transport in semiconductors is demonstration of spin precession and dephasing in a magnetic field non-collinear to the injected spin orientation. This is called the Hanle effect.
Applications such as semiconductor lasers using spin-polarized electrical injection have shown threshold current reduction and controllable circularly polarized coherent light output. Future applications may include a spin-based transistor having advantages over MOSFET devices such as steeper sub-threshold slope.
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