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Release: June 18, 2001

UI researcher receives $1.3 million in 'next generation' electronics grants

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Michael Flatté, professor in the College of Liberal Arts department of physics and astronomy, has been awarded two grants totaling nearly $1.3 million by the U.S. Department of Defense to help develop the theory for faster electronic devices.

The new devices, in contrast to conventional semiconductor electronic devices that move electrons back and forth to generate electric currents, will make use of the fact that electrons behave as though they spin. The phenomenon, known to physicists since the beginning of the 20th century, has given rise to an entire field of technology referred to as "spintronics."

Possible applications of new, spintronic devices include faster computer memories, which could replace both hard drives and ordinary computer memory. Spintronic memory devices, like hard drives, would require no input of electrical power in order to maintain stored information; however, access to the information would be much more rapid. Spintronics also could lead to the development of high-speed optical switches for telecommunications.

According to Flatté, the most outrageous possibility is that individual electron spins could be used as "quantum bits," the elementary unit of a "quantum computer." Quantum computers currently exist only as theoretical proposals and limited experimental demonstrations, but a large one would reach computational speeds beyond the reach of conventional computers. He notes that quantum computers could rapidly solve certain problems that are known to be practically unsolvable by conventional computers.

"Proposed semiconductor devices relying on electron spin already indicate the promise of this technology. The real work will be in implementing them," says Flatté, who reported on a design for a reprogrammable logic device using electron spin in the Feb. 26, 2001 issue of Applied Physics Letters.

Funding received by Flatté includes a three-year, $804,045 grant, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The DARPA work will be completed in collaboration with separately funded projects at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Pittsburgh. The other grant, a $466,763 award, is part of a five-year, $5 million multi-university research initiative funded by the Army Research Office (ARO) involving Cornell University (as the lead institution) and California Institute of Technology, UCSB, and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

Flatté will conduct his research at the Optical Science and Technology Center (OSTC), which provides opportunities for faculty in different disciplines with a common interest in optics and optoelectronics to interact. The center is located in the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories Building on the UI campus.