In designing electronic devices, scientists look for ways to manipulate and control three basic properties of electrons: their charge; their spin states, which give rise to magnetism; and the shapes of the fuzzy clouds they form around the nuclei of atoms, which are known as orbitals.
Until now, electron spins and orbitals were thought to go hand in hand in a class of materials that’s the cornerstone of modern information technology; you couldn’t quickly change one without changing the other. But a study at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory shows that a pulse of laser light can dramatically change the spin state of one important class of materials while leaving its orbital state intact.
The results suggest a new path for making a future generation of logic and memory devices based on “orbitronics,” said Lingjia Shen, a SLAC research associate and one of the lead researchers for the study.
“What we’re seeing in this system is the complete opposite of what people have seen in the past,” Shen said. “It raises the possibility that we could control a material’s spin and orbital states separately, and use variations in the shapes of orbitals as the 0s and 1s needed to make computations and store information in computer memories.”
The international research team, led by Joshua Turner, a SLAC staff scientist and investigator with the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science (SIMES), reported their results this week in Physical Review B Rapid Communications.
Much as electron spin states are switched in spintronics, electron orbital states could be switched to provide a similar function. These orbitronic devices could, in theory, operate 10,000 faster than spintronic devices, Shen said.
Switching between two orbital states could be made possible by using short bursts of terahertz radiation, rather than the magnetic fields used today, he said: “Combining the two could achieve much better device performance for future applications.” The team is working on ways to do that.