UD receives $1.9 million for new spintronics center
UD physicist John Xiao (seated) is the director of the new UD Center for Spintronics and Biodetection, and Edmund Nowak is one of the center’s principal investigators. Photo by Kathy Atkinson
4:47 p.m., April 20, 2007--The University of Delaware has been awarded $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to establish the new Center for Spintronics and Biodetection.

Spin electronics, or “spintronics,” is an emerging science that focuses on harnessing the “spin,” or magnetic properties of electrons, to encode and process data.

The high-tech field is expected to significantly broaden the electronics industry by fostering the development of much smaller, faster, energy-saving devices, from medical diagnostic equipment to environmental sensors that can detect nano-sized particles much tinier than human cells.

UD's research grant is part of $7.5 million grant awarded to universities in four states--Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, and New Hampshire--by DOE's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which supports scientific research in states that historically have received less federal funding for such studies. Academic institutions in 26 states and territories were eligible for the grants.

Delaware's state EPSCoR office, located at UD's Delaware Biotechnology Institute, helped coordinate the University's winning proposal. A major collaborator on the UD project is Argonne National Laboratory, one of DOE's largest research centers, located near Chicago.

“These partnerships with national labs are very important,” David McCarren, co-director of the state EPSCoR office, said. “They allow Delaware researchers access to the best instrumentation available and put them at the cutting edge of their fields, working with scientists at those sites.”

John Xiao, professor of physics and astronomy in UD's College of Arts and Sciences, will direct the new center and serve as one of its principal investigators.

The other principal investigators include Edmund Nowak, associate professor, and Branislav Nikolic and Yi Ji, assistant professors, all in the UD physics and astronomy department; James Kolodzey, the Charles Black Evans Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UD; and Souheng Sun, associate professor of chemistry and engineering at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“This is a really new field,” Xiao said. “Electrons have well-known properties, such as electrical charge, which is what the whole field of electronics is based on. Yet spintronics is taking advantage of the fact that electrons also rotate around an axis, just as the Earth does,” he noted. “This spin creates the electron's magnetic properties, just as the Earth has a magnetic North Pole and South Pole.”

Electrons can spin in one of two directions--either down or up--and carry vast amounts of data on the magnetic spin currents they generate while using much less energy than present-day electronic devices, according to Xiao.

Scientists in the emerging field of spintronics are working to harness the spin or magnetic currents from electrons to encode and process data. This figures shows a spin battery device. A microwave induces magnetic resonance in a magnetic layer (blue), which will generate a “spin current,” in which equal amounts of spin-up and spin-down electrons flow in opposing directions. The bottom magnetic layer (green) converts the spin current to a voltage for detection.
“Our new center will be at the forefront of research in how to generate spin current, detect it, and use it,” Xiao said.

The ultimate goal of the center, Xiao noted, is to develop a biosensor, patterned much like a DNA chip, which can detect the tiny magnetic field generated by a single nano-sized particle that can be used to label various biomolecules.

“There could be numerous applications for such highly sensitive sensors,” Xiao noted, “from increasing the early diagnosis of cancer, diabetes and other diseases in patients, to advancing the detection of harmful viruses in antiterrorism programs.”

The electronic sensor device will be built in collaboration with scientists at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory.

“Magnetism is a very old field that as a child I thought was like 'magic,'” Xiao said, smiling. “Yet about every 10 years, new physics come into the field. Currently, we're really into this nanoscale research, which we couldn't do before.”

Xiao was lured like a magnet into spintronics research when he was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. With UD's new center now established, Xiao said he sees lots of opportunities for UD researchers to become leaders in the field and involve students, including UD graduate and undergraduate students and Delaware high-school students, in the center's activities.

“We already have a strong research nucleus in this area at the University,” Xiao said. “We're looking forward to bringing people together, having a center where people can talk together and work together. By bringing together the strengths of different faculty, we hope to generate significant advances in spintronics science and technology.”

Article by Tracey Bryant