Nanotech Find Earns Two Europeans Nobel in Physics

Aalok Mehta
National Geographic News
October 9, 2007
Frenchmen Albert Fert and German Peter Grünberg have won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the phenomenon that makes modern-day hard-drive technology possible.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today announced that the two scientists will equally split the prize "for the discovery of giant magnetoresistance [GMR]," which amplifies small magnetic changes into large electrical signals.

The discovery has made possible the massive hard drives used in modern computers, cell phones, and music players, which store data magnetically.

"The practical benefits of this physics could not be greater," said Phillip Schewe, a spokesperson for the American Institute of Physics. "GMR is at the heart of the multi-billion-dollar hard-drive industry."

"This discovery played a key role in the phenomenal increase in storage capacity and reduction in size of magnetic recording systems that are the essential components of modern consumer products such as iPods and computers," added S.A. Solin, a professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the prize announcement, the Royal Swedish Academy also said that "GMR can also be considered one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology."

"Weird" Physics

Hard drives store data by magnetizing extremely small sections of material, similar to how VCRs and tape recorders work. But as more data is stored in the same amount of space, the magnetic signals get weaker.

This fact limited hard drive capacities until Fert, of the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, and Grünberg, of Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany, independently came across giant magnetoresistance in 1988.

The effect is a far better method for reading stored data, and the first GMR-based hard disks were created less than a decade later.

The scientists uncovered the phenomenon while studying the exact properties of extremely thin stacks of metal.

At just a few atoms thick, the layers were expected to experience unusual quantum effects. Fert and Grünberg found this included magnifying very weak magnetic changes into major differences in electrical conductivity.

"It's just an esoteric, weird type of physics, but a force that can be exploited to make valuable products," Schewe said.

"This is a wonderful example of how an accidental scientific discovery can have an extraordinary impact in technology—a marked increase in magnetic storage for information processing," added David Awschalom, a professor of physics and electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Future storage devices might also be inspired by giant magnetoresistance, which relies on a property of electrons called spin.

Scientists are now exploring how to use spin to create new kinds of circuits and electronics, a field known as "spintronics."

"The increasing interest in semiconductor spintronics—our field—has partly also been inspired by the success of the GMR and its consequences," said physicist Manfred Ramsteiner of Paul Drude Institute in Berlin, Germany.

Fert and Grünberg will equally split the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (about 1.5 million U.S. dollars).

Nobel Pursuits

Last year U.S. scientists John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the Nobel Prize in Physics for research that helped solidify the big bang theory of the origin of the universe.

And yesterday three scientists— Mario R. Capecchi and Oliver Smithies of the United States and Sir Martin J. Evans of Britain—won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work on manipulating mouse genes to improve studies of genetic diseases.

The Nobel prizes have been awarded since 1901 based on the will of chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite.

The 2007 prizes in chemistry, literature, peace, and economics will be announced over the next two weeks.

The awards will be officially presented on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

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