Researchers Look to Super-Spintronics for Future Computing

A University of Cambridge led project aims to develop a new architecture for future computing based on superconducting spintronics. Researchers on the project, dubbed Superspin, say it will pave the way for a new generation of ultralow power supercomputers capable of processing vast amounts of data at a fraction of the energy consumption of comparable facilities.

Superconducting spintronics is a new field of scientific investigation that has only emerged in the last few years. As the name suggests, it combines superconducting materials—that can carry a current without losing energy as heat—with spintronic devices. These devices manipulate electron “spin” and are capable of processing large amounts of information very quickly. Combining the two sounds like a natural marriage given the energy efficiency of superconductors but until recently it was also thought to be completely impossible. Most spintronic devices have magnetic elements that prevent superconductivity and therefore any energy-efficiency benefits.

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

Superspin researchers will explore how the technology could be applied in future computing as a whole, examining fundamental problems such as data storage, spin generation and flow, while also developing sample devices.

Cambridge professor Jason Robinson is one of the project leads and coauthor of a paper published in Nature. He says the program will provide a pathway to making dramatic improvements in computing energy efficiency. “Many research groups have recognized that superconducting spintronics offer extraordinary potential because they combine the properties of two traditionally incompatible fields to enable ultra-low power digital electronics.”

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 expects to have manufactured sample logic and memory devices—the basic components needed to develop a new generation of low-energy computing technologies.

“[A]t the moment,” Robinson says, “research programs 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.”