Can Spintronics Explain Physiological Information Storage?

Spintronics, short for spin-based electronics, is an emerging technology that exploits an electron’s spin rather than its electric charge in electronic devices. What really excites me about this technology is that it might help us to understand how our body stores information.

Also known as magnetoelectronics, spintronics is already widely used in the area of information storage; most laptops contain high-capacity hard drives that rely on spintronics to read a huge amount of densely packed data. And, in the (maybe not so?) distant future, spintronics might just be on its way to revolutionizing quantum computing.

How It Works

Imagine a small, electrically charged sphere (an electron) that is spinning rapidly. The circulating charges on the sphere amount to tiny loops of electric current, which create a magnetic field similar to the earth’s magnetic field.

Rather than the traditional clockwise or counterclockwise, the rotation of the spin is defined as either a spin up state, which is equivalent to a one, or a spin down state, which is equivalent to a zero. In conventional computing, each one or zero is called a bit, and in quantum computing, they are called qubits.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Electrons are not actually spheres; electrons are subatomic particles that seem to be dimensionless points—they lack coordinates such as width, height, length and time. Because they are dimensionless, electrons are in both the up and the down state at the same time, called coherent superpositions.  It is exactly this kind of coherent superposition that is used by quantum computers.

In a quantum computer, the large number of qubits, each in coherent superpositions of up and down states, would allow the computation of many different numbers simultaneously. The amount of information stored and the speed at which it could be processed in a quantum computer would, well, blow all current technology away.

Molecular Spintronics

Spintronic devices have now begun to incorporate organic molecules. For example, one study used a one-molecule-thick layer of self-assembled molecules containing carbon, hydrogen and sulfur.

Organic molecules may be preferable (to non-organic molecules) because electron spins can be preserved for longer time periods and distances, and because these molecules can be easily manipulated and self-assembled.

Can Spintronics Explain Information Storage in Our Bodies?

My first thought on reading about spintronics, especially molecular spintronics, is how this new technology might help us to understand how our body stores information. Our body, which runs on electricity, is basically one big bag of molecules with an estimated 2.3*1028 (or 2.3 followed by 28 zeroes) electrons.[1] (1027 is an octillion in the States and a quadrilliard[2] in Europe, so according to that estimate we have more than two octillion/quadrilliard electrons in our body!)

If each electron can spin up and down simultaneously, you can imagine how much information could be stored with more than two quadrilliard electrons. If the concept of spintronics can be applied to physiological systems, it might help to explain how our body collects, stores and processes information.

Now that would be exciting!! We’ll be posting more about spintronics in the future.

Sources and more information:

“Spintronics” by David D. Awschalom et al. Scientific American online. Published May 13, 2002. Accessed January 7, 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=spintronics

“Spintronics: A New Way to Store Digital Data” by Joe Palca. NPR online. Published December 17, 2010. Accessed January 11, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2010/12/17/132118276/spintronics-a-new-way-to-store-digital-data

Spintronics Devices Research on the IBM website. Accessed on January 11, 2011. http://www.almaden.ibm.com/spinaps/research/sd/?racetrack

“Molecular Spintronic Action Confirmed in Nanostructure.” Physorg.com. Published October 12, 2006. Accessed January 7, 2011. http://www.physorg.com/news79885859.html

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Touchy Subjects is owned and operated by Brenda Piquette. All information on the Touchy Subjects blog is copyright Brenda Piquette 2010 / 2011.


[1] Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Jefferson Lab. http://education.jlab.org/qa/mathatom_04.html

[2] Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/large.html

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