Thanks to a team of Penn State researchers, improved, multi-functional electronic devices — particularly those that are non-silicon based — may soon be found in the market place.
In a relatively new field of study, Qi Li, a physics professor at Penn State, led a team of researchers, who conducted research over a period of two years, which she called “not very long.”
“We were studying how we could use electrical means to control magnetic orientation,” Li said. “That was the initial idea.”
Li said it started as “fundamental research,” but for her, it ended up being “very relevant” because in recent years, the need for controlling electronic devices in small structures, like cell phones, has become important. This would need to be done without the use of a magnetic field but rather with electrical current.
Li ended up proving with an experiment that electrical voltage could control magnets if certain materials were used. But her research team ended up finding more, as people realized the structure used in the experiment had alternative uses.
The end results yielded several possibilities, including improved memory in certain electronic devices and a faster way for electronic devices to perform logic functions, such as binary code and memory functions in the same device.
Though it is too early to tell if the discovery will end up in electronics for consumer purchase, it is a possibility, Li said. Ultimately, Li said the engineers determine the design and use of the discovered technology.
In the beginning, Li did not expect that her research would yield such results.
“For a while in the beginning, we didn’t have anything,” Li said. “Then we redesigned the materials and interface, [and] we suddenly saw an effect.”
Li said she had her graduate student, who helped her on the research, do more than 100 experiments that failed because of all the parameters that could be changed, Li said.
In terms of scientific discovery, Li said what comes out of it is not always expected.
“There are some vague ideas,” Li said. “When you do it, it’s not often what the vague ideas are bringing. It’s something else.”
University of Nebraska professors made up some of the research team as well. These included John Burton, Alexei Gruverman and Evgeny Tsymbal, according to a Penn State Science press release. Burton and Gruverman could not be reached for comment. Tsymbal deferred comment to Burton.
Other contributors came from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and China.
Richard Robinett, the associate head of the physics department at Penn State, says the research such as Li’s is what is bettering departments across the university.
“When I first got here, [our department was] ranked 55th,” Robinett said. “Now we are ranked 10 or 15th.”
But as for the glory of having her name on the research, Li is focused on results.
“As a researcher, I think only in terms of the research direction and results,” Li said via email. “I am happy with the results and the implication our results showed, and we are planning for the next step.”