Nanorings could hold key to faster computers

(Nanowerk News) Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University have discovered that asymmetrical "nanorings" — tiny, irregularly shaped nickel or cobalt rings — can serve as memory cells. Nanorings could be used to create a coin-sized hard drive for computers and bring advantages such as faster operating speeds and consuming much less energy. Doctoral candidates Frank Q. Zhu and Chia-Ling Chien discovered that the nanorings can store a large amount of information, and are resistant to the problem of stray magnetic fields. The production of asymmetrical nanorings would encompass multiple steps involving self-assembly, thin film deposition, and dry etching.
Imagine a computer that doesn't lose data even in a sudden power outage, or a coin-sized hard drive that could store 100 or more movies.
Magnetic random-access memory, or MRAM, could make these possible, and would also offer numerous other advantages. It would, for instance, operate at much faster than the speed of ordinary memory but consume 99 percent less energy.
The current challenge, however, is the design of a fast, reliable and inexpensive way to build stable and densely packed magnetic memory cells. A team of researchers at The Johns Hopkins University, writing in the Jan. 20, 2006 issue of Physical Review Letters ("Magnetic Bistability and Controllable Reversal of Asymmetric Ferromagnetic Nanorings"), has come up with one possible answer: tiny, irregularly shaped cobalt or nickel rings that can serve as memory cells. These "nanorings" can store a great quantity of information. They also are immune to the problem of "stray" magnetic fields, which are fields that "leak" from other kinds of magnets and can thus interfere with magnets next to them. Chia-Ling Chien, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins, headed up the research team.
Top view scanning electron microscope (SEM) micrographs of (a) symmetric and (b) asymmetric nanorings fabricated from /r/ = 50 nm PS spheres at 0° and 14° / /ion milling angles, respectively. Inset is the composition sensitive SEM image of the ring, bright areas represent Co (Source: Johns Hopkins University)
"It's the asymmetrical design that's the breakthrough, but we are also very excited about the fast, efficient and inexpensive method we came up with for making them," said paper co-author Frank Q. Zhu, a doctoral candidate in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins.
SEM image of 100 nm symmetric Co nanorings released from substrates that tend to bundle together due to magnetic attraction (Source: Johns Hopkins University)
The nanorings are extremely small, with a diameter of about 100 nanometers. A single nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A single strand of human hair can hold 1 million rings of this size, Zhu says.
The asymmetrical design allows more of the nanorings to end up in a so-called "vortex state," meaning they have no stray field at all. With no stray field to contend with, Zhu's team's nanorings act like quiet neighbors who don't bother each other, and thus can be packed extremely densely. As a result, the amount of information that can be stored in a given area is greatly increased.
Fabrication of the nanorings is a multistep procedure involving self-assembly, thin film deposition and dry etching. The key to creating asymmetrical rings, Zhu said, is to — while etching the rings with an argon ion beam at the end of the process — tilt the substrate on which the rings are formed.
"In our previous study, we found that 100 nm symmetric nanorings have only about a 40 percent chance to get vortex state," Zhu said. "But the asymmetric nanorings have between a 40 percent and 100 percent chance to get vortex state. This chance can be controlled on-demand by utilizing the direction of magnetic field."
Source: Johns Hopkins University