Pushing electronics into fast forward

By Christine Roulston



When Natia Frank says it’s important to approach a problem as a whole, she means it. The Canada Research Chair in Multifunctional Materials Design has spent her life combining seemingly divergent subject areas in the search for the best solution.

Growing up in a household of artists and musicians in upstate New York, Frank developed a keen interest in both art and science. Rather than viewing the two subject areas as separate, she saw how they could complement one another. Frank even completed her undergraduate studies with a triple degree in math, music and chemistry.

“What attracted me to chemistry is that it is very much an art,” says Frank. “A lot of creativity that is similar to music is involved in the designing of structure and the understanding of how structure affects reactivity in chemistry.”

Frank’s ability to break down barriers between disciplines has led her to become a leading researcher in “spintronics,” one of the hottest new areas of science.

Conventional electronics makes use of the charge state of electrons, while spintronics takes advantage of the “direction” of spin of an electron (the clockwise or counterclockwise rotation of an electron relative to an external magnetic field) as well as its charge state.
Spintronic devices are currently used in mass data storage devices and hold great promise for the development of microelectronics that require orders of magnitude less power to run.

“One of the most obvious uses of spintronics is in expanding the amount of data a computer hard drive can store,” says Frank. “But because traditional data storage media involve magnet grains or films, the density of grains or ‘bits’ must be so high that it can cause ‘random flips’ in the spins, which can lead to improper or slow functioning of the computer.”

To get around the problem, Frank and her team of seven UVic scientists are combining magnetic, optical and conducting functions into hybrid materials to advance electronic data storage.

Frank is also keenly interested in quantum computing, an application of spintronics which is still in its infancy. The science allows computers to conduct complex calculations simultaneously, such as climate change mapping and the encryption of data at a very high level, which would improve security for many items from credit and identity cards to top secret government documents.

Frank joined UVic’s Department of Chemistry in January 2005, after four years at the University of Washington. Her education and career has taken her to leading universities and research institutions across North America and France.

Her research program at UVic also involves working on photomagnetic systems, in which exposing organic and inorganic compounds to a laser beam of light leads to changes in the magnetic properties of the material.

Frank’s excitement for the evolution of spintronics is palpable. “Magnetism and conductivity aren’t well understood. Significant computational, synthetic and intellectual challenges are involved, and that’s exciting,” she says. “I enjoy being part of three different scientific communities—the magnetism, optical and conductivity community all working towards a common goal.”

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