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Nanosize magnetic whirlpools could be the future of data storage

Published: 3 August 2016
Skyrmions
Skyrmions could be the future of data storage

The use of nanoscale magnetic whirlpools, known as magnetic skyrmions, to create novel and efficient ways to store data will be explored in a new £7M research programme involving University of Southampton researchers.

Skyrmions, which are a new quantum mechanical state of matter, could be used to make our day-to-day gadgets, such as mobile phones and laptops, much smaller and cheaper whilst using less energy and generating less heat.

It is hoped better and more in-depth knowledge of skyrmions could address society’s ever-increasing demands for processing and storing large amounts of data and improve current hard drive technology.

Revolutionise data storage

Scientists first predicted the existence of skyrmions in 1962 but they were only discovered experimentally in magnetic materials in 2009.

The UK team, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), now aims to make a step change in our understanding of skyrmions with the goal of producing a new type of demonstrator device in partnership with industry.

Skyrmions, tiny swirling patterns in magnetic fields, can be created, manipulated and controlled in certain magnetic materials. Inside a skyrmion, magnetic moments point in different directions in a self-organised vortex. Skyrmions are only very weakly coupled to the underlying atoms in the material, and to each other, and their small size means they can be tightly packed together. Together with the strong forces that lock magnetic fields into the skyrmion pattern, the result is that the magnetic information encoded by skyrmions is very robust.

Scientists can potentially move a skyrmion with 100,000 times less energy than is needed to move a ferromagnetic domain, the objects currently used in the memory of our computers and smartphones. Currently when we access information through the web, we remotely use hard disk drives that generate lots of heat and waste lots of energy. Skyrmionic technology could allow this to be done on smaller scale devices which would use much less energy.

Skyrmions could therefore revolutionise the way we store data.

Consortium of experts

The Southampton researchers involved in the project are Professor Hans Fangohr and Dr Ondrej Hovorka from the University’s Computational Modelling Group. Professor Fangohr said: “Southampton will support this national grant into Skyrmion research by providing the computational science expertise and computational modelling to underpin, help understand and guide experimental work at our partner sites in Cambridge, Durham, Oxford and Warwick.

“The skyrmions provide rich physics – this project will explore both the more fundamental physics questions that they raise and the potential for skyrmion use in applications.”

The national consortium includes experts from the universities of Durham, Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge and Southampton, plus industry partners.

World of opportunities

The first prediction of a new type of stable configuration came from British physicist Tony Skyrme and has since opened up a whole variety of different sized and shaped skyrmion objects with different properties to conventional matter. However, numerous questions remain unanswered which focus on how best to exploit the unique magnetic properties of these magnetic excitations in devices.

The three generic themes the team will look at are:

• The development, discovery and growth of magnetic materials that host skyrmion spin textures;

• A greater understanding of the physics of these objects;

• Engineering of the materials to application.

The research team will use state-of-the-art facilities such as synchrotron, neutron and muon sources both within the UK and internationally. The research is funded from summer 2016 until 2022.

The research team is currently looking for five postdoctoral research associates to join the project. For more information about these opportunities, please visit www.skyrmions.co.uk

More information about the Southampton post on computational modelling is available at https://www.southampton.ac.uk/~fangohr/vacancies/programmegrant.html

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