Top-of-the-line computers today offer about 80 gigabytes of hard disk space, but new technology being researched at UCSB may make it possible for computers to have terrabit storage, about a thousand times the size of storage currently available.

Physics professor David Awschalom, along with professors and graduate students from the physics, materials and electrical engineering departments at UCSB’s Center for Spintronics and Quantum Computation, is developing a new technology known as spintronics, which uses previously unexploited properties of electrons to produce more efficient digital appliances.

“This is turning out to be a very rich area in science and technology,” Awschalom said.

Spintronics may one day produce a generation of high-capacity hard drives and digital storage devices, according to Awschalom, who is also the director of the Center for Spintronics and Quantum Computation. But the technology is still largely undeveloped, and practical applications are a long way off.

“Our guess is that some of the first simple spintronic devices that will appear in the first five years are ultrahigh-speed telecommunications,” Awschalom said. “Spintronics would make it so that optical fibers could carry much more information.”

So far, the only device to be built using spintronics is a spin light emitting diode, or “spin LED,” which was constructed by researchers at the Center. Conventional LEDs are a widely used component of electronic devices. Other spintronic devices are also in the planning stages, according to Awschalom.

“It is not obvious what the biggest impact will be,” he said. “There are unprecedented rates of discovery in this area.”

Spintronics is based on the motion of electrons. Computers use this motion to store information. Electrons carry a negative charge and spin either up or down. In spintronic devices, the two types of spin are used to represent the ones and zeros of the binary code computers use to operate.

Currently, digital appliances require electrons to be moved around to store and access information. These conventional computers use the presence or absence of the electron’s charge as a one or a zero.

Changing the spin of an electron is faster and requires less power than moving it. It also generates less heat.

“It’s another aspect of nature no one has capitalized on yet,” Awschalom said.

The experimental techniques necessary to pursue this research were developed very recently, and many of the discoveries made have been purely accidental.

“We’re very fortunate that the grad students have unveiled as much as they have,” Awschalom said. “Much of what they’ve found was the result of just trying to understand the science behind the way the electrons were behaving.”

Yuichiro Kato, a graduate student from Japan, recently collaborated on a paper about spintronics, which was published in the journal Science. He is one of many students who work with Awschalom.

“[Spintronics] is why I came here,” Kato said. “It’s exciting because everything we do is new. It’s the type of thing you can only do here.”

“It’s an incredible opportunity to be at Santa Barbara right now,” Zeke Johnston-Halperin, another grad student at the Center, said. “A lot of really important work in science is happening at this university, and everyone contributes in their area of expertise.”