Millennium Technology Prize for new Max Planck Director

Stuart Parkin receives Finnish Millennium Technology Prize, which is worth one million euros and is regarded as Nobel prize for technological innovation

April 09, 2014

If we can stream music and videos from the Internet today, we owe this not least to the physicist Stuart Parkin. His inventions in the field of spintronics enabled a more than 1000-fold increase in the magnetic hard-disk-drive data-density and made it possible to store huge amounts of data on Computer clouds today. For his achievements, the director at the Max Planck Institute for Microstructure Physics in Halle and Humboldt Professor at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg is now being presented with the Millennium Technology Prize of the Finnish Academy of Technology. The prize is endowed with a sum of one million euros for technical and medical innovations. Previous recipients include inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee. The Max Planck Society, with generous support from the state of Saxony-Anhalt, the University of Halle, the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation, and the Max Planck Foundation, recently succeeded in recruiting the physicist to its research institute in Halle. Parkin is currently carrying out research at IBM and the University of Stanford.

Stuart Parkin's discoveries have helped the computer industry to create a megahit. With his research on thin magnetic films, he created the basis on which IBM developed a new read head for hard drives. This reads data even from very densely packed magnetic memory materials in a very reliable manner. All at once, hard drives were able to store 1000 times more data than previously possible. This paved the way for the era of big data, the handling of large amounts of data. It is partially thanks to this that we are able to easily share movies and pictures via social networks or computer Clouds and groups of networked computers every day.

For his research in the field of spintronics, which forms the basis of this innovation, the distinguished Finnish Academy of Technology presents Stuart Parkin with the Millennium Technology Prize 2014 - the world's largest technology prize. "I was very surprised when I heard that I was going to receive this prestigious award", says Stuart Parkin. "I consider this prize as a great honor."

A valve for electronic spins makes a read head particularly sensitive

Parkin developed a kind of spin-valve consisting of two magnetic materials whose magnetization can be changed in different ways. The spin is a quantum mechanical property and, for example, turns electrons to tiny magnets. In a magnetic field, spins – the magnets – arrange themselves along the magnetic field lines. Thus a magnetic order is created, in which the spins of the electrons are regularly aligned.

If a voltage is located between two magnetic thin layers which are separated by the thin layer of a metal, electrons flow from one magnetic layer to another. The level of electric resistance of the magnetic "sandwich" depends on whether the two magnetic layers are polarized in the same or opposite direction. The effect of this giant magnetic resistance, for whose discovery Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg received the Nobel Prize, can be used to read information from the magnetic storage point of a hard drive. However, a prerequisite is that the magnetic field of the memory point can reverse the polarity of only one of the magnetic layers. That is the case in the spin valve, which reveals the polarity of the storage point resistance change in the spin valve. Since it responds to magnetic fields much smaller than other read heads, the individual memory points on a hard drive can drastically reduce and increase the storage density significantly.

Stuart Parkin has not only designed read heads for hard drives according to this principle, but also a new type of random-access memory (RAM) which was previously used as a memory of computers. The magnetic RAM developed by Stuart Parkin  could now make the separation between memory and disk storage superfluous. In recent years, Parkin is also working on a Racetrack Memory with which data could be stored in three rather than two dimensions. Thus, the data density in storage media could be enhanced even further.

A great boost for the research location Halle

Stuart Parkin will now continue his research on data storage in Halle, where he has occupied positions as Max Planck Director and Humboldt Professor at the Martin-Luther- University Halle-Wittenberg. "We are especially grateful to the state of Saxony-Anhalt for its great commitment, which has enabled us to appoint Stuart Parkin to the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics in Halle," says Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society. "With this outstanding researcher on board, we can continue the institute's scientific success and help the research location Halle to attain international visibility in the future."

In order to attract Parkin to Halle, the Max Planck Society, the ​​Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg and the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation teamed up in joint efforts. The Max Planck Society and the ​​Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg also managed to attract Parkin to Halle with the help of the Max Planck Foundation and Germany's most valuable research award, the Alexander-von-Humboldt professorship. This award is presented by the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation and endowed with five million euros. The award ceremony will take place in Berlin on May 8.

"We are extremely pleased that we have succeeded in bringing the exceptional scientist Stuart Parkin here, thanks to the the very good partnership between the University and the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics", says Udo Sträter, Rector of the University.



In Halle, Stuart Parkin will, amongst others, explore layers that are only a few atomic layers thick, to reach a better understanding of spin-currents. In spinning streams, it is not only the charge of the electron that plays a role, but also their spin. When researchers understand these currents in detail, they will be able to advance the development of spintronics. Spintronic data chips could be smaller and more energy- efficient than electronic chips. In addition, Parkin wants to develop the concept for a completely new kind of data storage. These should adapt their characteristics to new tasks during operation, similar to the human brain. "Such cognitive memory could use a million times less power than today's memory," says the physicist.

"At the Max Planck Institute, I can carry out daring, maybe even crazy research projects, which require patience and a great deal of research autonomy."


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