In magnetic contrast images (top) taken by the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the bright spots are nanomagnets with their north ends pointing down (represented by red bar below) and the dark spots are north-up nanomagnets (blue). The six nanomagnets form a majority logic gate transistor, where the output on the right of the center bar is determined by the majority of three inputs on the top, left and bottom. Horizontal neighboring magnets tend to point in alternate directions, while vertical neighbors prefer to point in the same direction.
Today’s silicon-based microprocessor chips rely on electric currents, or moving electrons, that generate a lot of waste heat. But microprocessors employing nanometer-sized bar magnets – like tiny refrigerator magnets – for memory, logic and switching operations theoretically would require no moving electrons.
Such chips would dissipate only 18 millielectron volts of energy per operation at room temperature, the minimum allowed by the second law of thermodynamics and called the Landauer limit. That’s 1 million times less energy per operation than consumed by today’s computers.
Fifty years ago, Rolf Landauer used newly developed information theory to calculate the minimum energy a logical operation, such as an AND or OR operation, would dissipate given the limitation imposed by the second law of thermodynamics. (In a standard logic gate with two inputs and one output, an AND operation produces an output when it has two positive inputs, while an OR operation produces an output when one or both inputs are positive.) That law states that an irreversible process – a logical operation or the erasure of a bit of information – dissipates energy that cannot be recovered. In other words, the entropy of any closed system cannot decrease.
In today’s transistors and microprocessors, this limit is far below other energy losses that generate heat, primarily through the electrical resistance of moving electrons. However, researchers such as Bokor are trying to develop computers that don’t rely on moving electrons, and thus could approach the Landauer limit. Lambson decided to theoretically and experimentally test the limiting energy efficiency of a simple magnetic logic circuit and magnetic memory.
The nanomagnets that Bokor, Lambson and his lab use to build magnetic memory and logic devices are about 100 nanometers wide and about 200 nanometers long. Because they have the same north-south polarity as a bar magnet, the up-or-down orientation of the pole can be used to represent the 0 and 1 of binary computer memory. In addition, when multiple nanomagnets are brought together, their north and south poles interact via dipole-dipole forces to exhibit transistor behavior, allowing simple logic operations.
“The magnets themselves are the built-in memory,” Lambson said. “The real challenge is getting the wires and transistors working.”
The Landauer limit is proportional to temperature, circuits cooled to low temperatures would be even more efficient.
At the moment, electrical currents are used to generate a magnetic field to erase or flip the polarity of nanomagnets, which dissipates a lot of energy. Ideally, new materials will make electrical currents unnecessary, except perhaps for relaying information from one chip to another