Modern electronics are based on the charges of the electrons that move through them. Differences between the amount of charge are what separate different values. In the future though it may be the spin, an intrinsic property of an electron, that will be used instead. Spintronics will have many advantages of modern electronics, including very low power requirements, but there are still many challenges to overcome. Researchers led by those at Berkeley Lab have taken a major step towards that future recently by studying dilute magnetic semiconductors.
Dilute magnetic semiconductors are semiconductors, like gallium arsenide, that have had a magnetic material added to them, like manganese. Normally the semiconductor is not magnetic, but even the limited number of manganese atoms gives the material magnetic properties and the researchers wanted to know why. There are currently two theories to explain the properties emerging, one involving the electrons in the gallium arsenide mediating the magnetism of the manganese through the material and the other states that electrons have a way to jump between two manganese atoms. Using a hard X-ray source, the researchers discovered that both theories are correct and together bring about the magnetism of the semiconductor.
This is important research if we are ever going to see spintronic computers because currently the magnetism of the semiconductors involved only exists at low temperatures. By understanding why the magnetism comes about though, it may be possible to preserve that state at room temperature.