How shape-shifting magnets could help build a lower-emission computer

In the coming decades, some of the planet’s most powerful computers might store their zeroes and ones not as electrons in silicon, but as tiny magnetic fields.

The device you’re using to read this article almost certainly operates by placing its zeroes and ones in bits of semiconductor, namely silicon—which constantly needs electricity to function.

In a world that’s pushing for net-zero carbon emissions, that sort of energy use won’t do. Luckily, researchers are working on fundamentally changing how computers work—which could lead to powerful, lower-energy devices. One way of doing that is to build a computer with magnets.

 

Researchers at the University of Michigan, collaborating with chip-maker Intel, have created a new iron alloy that could be a major feature of magnet-based computers of tomorrow. Their work was published recently in Nature Communications.

Their alloy acts as a magnetostrictor. That means it relies on the fact that when you plunge a magnetic material, such as iron, within a magnetic field, that material subtly shape-shifts. By adding other metals (an alloy is a mixture of metallic elements) and fine-tuning their proportions, you can make alloys that are more magnetostrictive, or more flexible when their magnetic fields change.

Today, magnetostrictors help us build high-quality sensors, since we can detect the changes of a good magnetostrictor’s shape in the presence of magnetic fields, even rather weak ones. By using electrical current to create magnetic fields, you can force a magnetostrictor to shape-shift. In this way, you can convert the electrical energy of the current, relatively easily, into the mechanical energy of the magnetostrictor changing shape.

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