Fundamental research not only increases our knowledge, it is essential for generating new practical applications. No-one is surprised anymore by the fact that we can send gigabytes of information to our hard disks in a short period of time. This is partly due to a fundamental discovery made by the French physicist Albert Fert in 1988, at the same time as his German colleague Peter Grünberg. The two were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2007 for their discovery. By invitation of the Board of the University and the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, on Wednesday 1 May Fert will give a public lecture at the University of Groningen.
In 1988, Fert demonstrated that under the influence of a magnetic field, electrical resistance is significantly reduced in alternate layers of ferromagnetic and non-magnetic material. This is called the giant magnetoresistance (GMR) effect. The GMR effect is the result of fundamental properties of electrons in materials. Electrons have a spin (put simply, a turning direction, just like a top) in one of two directions – up or down. An electron passes easily through material that has the same spin direction, but encounters strong resistance in material with the opposite spin.
The GMR effect has already been applied in the read-and-write heads of hard disks. In addition to the GMR effect, electron spin is also important for ‘spintronics’, a new field that uses electron spin to create even smaller and more efficient electronic circuits.
In his lecture, Fert will discuss selected fundamental discoveries that may lead to technological innovations. One example is the fundamental phenomenon ‘spin dependent tunnelling’ that may be useful for new, permanent computer memory that imitates the self-adapting behaviour of neuronal networks in the brain. Tunnelling is a somewhat bizarre quantum mechanics effect whereby an electron is able to pass through an insulated layer. Another example Fert will discuss is graphene as one of the prospective materials that might be able to go beyond current silicon-based semiconductor technology. Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms, is thought to be an ideal material for new types of logic devices with ground-breaking advantages in terms of speed and ultra-low energy consumption.
Albert Fert, like Groningen Professor of Applied Physics Bart van Wees, participates in the spintronics Work Package of the EU Graphene Flagship – a major new research programme of the European Union on the properties and possibilities of graphene. No less than EUR 1 billion has been reserved for this research in the next ten years. Alongside more fundamental knowledge, this programme will result in new applications, for example a totally new kind of computer chip that works faster and more efficiently. This sort of technology is of crucial importance in analysing the ever-increasing streams of data, for example in drugs research.
Albert Fert will give his university lecture at 7:30 p.m. on May 1, 2013 in the Aula of the Academy building.
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