Growing quantities of data storage online are driving up the energy costs of high-performance computing and data centres. Superconducting spintronics offer a potential means of significantly increasing their energy-efficiency to resolve this problem.

A Cambridge-led project aiming to develop a new architecture for future computing based on superconducting spintronics - technology designed to increase the energy-efficiency of high-performance computers and data storage - has been announced.

Superconducting spintronics offer extraordinary potential because they combine the properties of two traditionally incompatible fields to enable ultra-low power digital electronics

Jason Robinson

A project which aims to establish the UK as an international leader in the development of “superconducting spintronics” – technology that could significantly increase the energy-efficiency of data centres and high-performance computing – has been announced.

Led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the “Superspin” project aims to develop prototype devices that will pave the way for a new generation of ultra-low power supercomputers, capable of processing vast amounts of data, but at a fraction of the huge energy consumption of comparable facilities at the moment.

As more economic and cultural activity moves online, the data centres which house the servers needed to handle internet traffic are consuming increasing amounts of energy. An estimated three per cent of power generated in Europe is, for example, already used by data centres, which act as repositories for billions of gigabytes of information.

Superconducting spintronics is a new field of scientific investigation that has only emerged in the last few years. Researchers now believe that it could offer a pathway to solving the energy demands posed by high performance computing.

As the name suggests, it combines superconducting materials – which can carry a current without losing energy as heat – with spintronic devices. These are devices which manipulate a feature of electrons known as their “spin”, and are capable of processing large amounts of information very quickly.

Given the energy-efficiency of superconductors, combining the two sounds like a natural marriage, but until recently it was also thought to be completely impossible. Most spintronic devices have magnetic elements, and this magnetism prevents superconductivity, and hence reduces any energy-efficiency benefits.

Stemming from the discovery of spin polarized supercurrents in 2010 at the University of Cambridge, recent research, along with that of other institutions, has however shown that it is possible to power spintronic devices with a superconductor. The aim of the new £2.7 million project, which is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is to use this as the basis for a new style of computing architecture.

Although work is already underway in several other countries to exploit superconducting spintronics, the Superspin project is unprecedented in terms of its magnitude and scope.

Researchers will explore how the technology could be applied in future computing as a whole, examining fundamental problems such as spin generation and flow, and data storage, while also developing sample devices. According to the project proposal, the work has the potential to establish Britain as a leading centre for this type of research and “ignite a technology field.”

The project will be led by Professor Mark Blamire, Head of the Department of Materials Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Jason Robinson, University Lecturer in Materials Sciences, Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and University Research Fellow of the Royal Society. They will work with partners in the University’s Cavendish Laboratory (Dr Andrew Ferguson) and at Royal Holloway, London (Professor Matthias Eschrig).

Blamire and Robinson’s core vision of the programme is “to generate a paradigm shift in spin electronics, using recent discoveries about how superconductors can be combined with magnetism.” The programme will provide a pathway to making dramatic improvements in computing energy efficiency.

Robinson added: “Many research groups have recognised that superconducting spintronics offer extraordinary potential because they combine the properties of two traditionally incompatible fields to enable ultra-low power digital electronics.”

“However, at the moment, research programmes around the world are individually studying fascinating basic phenomena, rather than looking at developing an overall understanding of what could actually be delivered if all of this was joined up. Our project will aim to establish a closer collaboration between the people doing the basic science, while also developing demonstrator devices that can turn superconducting spintronics into a reality.”

The initial stages of the five-year project will be exploratory, examining different ways in which spin can be transported and magnetism controlled in a superconducting state. By 2021, however, the team hope that they will have manufactured sample logic and memory devices – the basic components that would be needed to develop a new generation of low-energy computing technologies.

The project will also report to an advisory board, comprising representatives from several leading technology firms, to ensure an ongoing exchange between the researchers and industry partners capable of taking its results further.

“The programme provides us with an opportunity to take international leadership of this as a technology, as well as in the basic science of studying and improving the interaction between superconductivity and magnetism,” Blamire said. “Once you have grasped the physics behind the operation of a sample device, scaling up from the sort of models that we are aiming to develop is not, in principle, too taxing.”

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