Magnets herald 10 billion-part microchip

A technology capable of squeezing a billion times more transistors onto a microchip than is currently possible could herald the start of a new technological age, researchers at the University of Cambridge claim.

The technology is based on magnetics instead of the standard electronics underpinning today’s microchips.

The researchers’ microchips have tiny magnets, between 0.1- 0.25 microns in size, placed on a silicon surface. The magnets replicate the logic functions of electronic transistors and communicate with each other using magnetic fields.

Different logic states are signalled by the direction of magnetisation of the tiny magnetic dots. Up to 10 billion dots could fit on a conventional 1cm2 chip. The researchers estimate this figure could rise to 250 billion. This compares to the 6.6 million conventional transistors which fit on an ordinary chip.

Magnetic solitons – solitary waves – carry information through the chip’s networks. An oscillating magnetic field is used to power the system and act as a the chip’s clock.

The magnetic chip’s inventors, Dr Russell Cowburn and professor Mark Welland of Cambridge University’s engineering department, say that besides the reduction in size, the big advantage of magnetic chips will be energy efficiency. They claim their chips are 40,000 time more efficient than electronic chips.

`Computers developed using magnetic microchips will therefore need much less power,’ said Welland.

The two researchers believe it will be several years before the technology is commercialised. `But the days of carrying around heavy batteries for laptop computers and mobile phones are numbered,’ Welland said.