science news

GMR and the Nobel Prize

A computer hard disk reader that uses a GMR sensor is equivalent to a jet flying at a speed of 30,000 kilometers (19,500 miles) per hour … at a height of just one meter above the ground, and yet being able to see and catalogue every single blade of grass it passes over,” [Ben Murdin, a physics professor at the University of Surrey in southeast England] said.

Impressive, eh?  This year’s Nobel in physics was awarded for something that you actually use on a daily basis…but never think about. Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg get to split $1.5Million for their discovery of Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR).  I know; not only does it sound amazingly cool, but it’s actually useful?  I mean, anti-particles, darkmatter, parallel universes and string theory are sexy and all, but come on.  This tech. actually is called Giant.  Not to mention that the discovery of GMR led to the field of spintronics, and the principles behind your iPod and 500 gigabyte hard drive.

On to the science.

To start this discussion, I have to explain a little about spin and it’s interaction with mag. fields.

Let’s review.

So if you sent a beam of electrons through a magnetic field and had some quantum trash bags to collect the electrons upon exiting this mag. field, you’d see that 1 bag was full of spin up electrons, and 1 bag was full of spin down electrons.

One way you can attempt to rationalize this (and I know this is a little hand-wavy, but it’ll do) is to imagine an infinitesimal charge, dq on the surface of the electron.  If we see that the electron is spherical and spinning, either clockwise or counterclockwise, then this dq rotates about as well.  So would all the other dq’s on the surface of the electron.  You know that the flow of charge generates a magnetic field.  Through Maxwell’s eq. you could show that if the electron is spinning clockwise it’s z-axis, you’d see a magnetic field pointing in the “-z direction” (remember, no magnetic monopoles (we think) so the field lines could be thought of as initially going out the bottom of the electron. and then curling back up to arrive at the top), and if it was spinning counterclockwise, you’d see the field pointing in the +z direction.  These two dipole moments we call spin up and spin down, and they either align in parallel with the external magnetic field, or antiparallel with it.  As you’re probably guessing, the parallel alignment is slightly lower in energy then the antiparallel.  This is known as the Zeeman effect.


So GMR is, in my opinion, one really big and really cool trick.  I say so because it’s one of those things that seems to me as obvious but not trivial.  There are a few different types of GMR applications that operate off of the same basic principle.  Here I’ll talk about the most used one, the spin-valve.

If you take a ferromagnetic layer and polarize it, the unpaired electrons in the layer will align themselves to the external magnetic field.  These electrons are now what we call “spin polarized”.  Do this for a second layer and place them next to each other, but separated by a non ferromagnetic layer.  Slap a potential difference across the two layers, and the electrons will maintain their polarization while moving through the circuit.  But when these electrons hit a material with a mag. field opposite their spin direction, they get flipped.  And here’s the rub:  flipping the spins requires extra energy…in other words the electrical resistance is increased when the magnetic materials are polarized in the opposite directions (anti-parallel alignment).

Who cares?  Well, you do, you just might not see it yet.  Being able to change the like this electrical resistance, which is easily detectable, is what computer guys call “non-volatile”.  Meaning you don’t require power to keep the changes made.  If you let the “low resistance” represent 1 and the “high resistance” represent 0, you can get digital logic.  Imagine doing what we just discussed, hundreds of billions of times on a 3.5″ disc…and you’ve got yourself a hard drive.  This is a relatively simple type of spintronic device, which is why they say that the GMR discovery gave birth to the field of spintronics.

Spintronics is, in general, the development of technology which allows you to make use of the spins of electrons. If you can generate a current of like-spinned electrons, i.e. polarized electrons, and send them through a device that can detect and act based on the spin of these electrons, you have created a spintronic device.  It is sensitive not to voltage or charge or mass, but on the electron’s spin.  That’s a really big deal.  After-all, you’ve got an intrinsic 1 or 0 right there.

So the next time you strap that overpriced, little white noise machine onto your arm and go for a jog, say thanks to a couple of physicists who discovered something that turned out to be useful…in your lifetime.

Note:  This was by no means a rigorous discussion, and if anyone is interested in the topic, you could start a thread in the forums and see what grows.  For the blog though, this is maybe already too indepth.  I should have added some pretty pictures.  Tongue


By October 11, 2007 0 comments science news

Energy Discussions 1: Water Cars

Since I have seen a number a of energy related topics on the boards in the past few weeks and Mitch decided to talk about cold fusion, I decided my next few posts will be related to new/renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

This particular post was inspired by the many, many electrochem. questions by Walman who also reminded me about Stanley Meyers’ work on water cars.

Yes thats right…water powered vehicles.

Now I know you are all rolling your eyes saying things like “electrolysis takes about 5 times more energy in then you get out” or “If he really invented some new form of electrolysis why don’t we all drive water cars?” and of course “Who cares? Maz is nuts anyways!”.

I would ask you naysayers to wait a bit and take a look at some of this guy’s evidence. NOTE: I don’t really buy it, but you never know. It may be possible.

So lets begin with a basic review of electrolysis, which is the separation of certain bonded atoms or molecules by running electric current across them. We are concerned here with the electrolysis of water which goes like this:

2H2O –> 2H2 + O2 Where the H2O was in liquid phase, and the hydrogen and oxygen products are in gas phase.

When you put enough electrical current across water, you add enough energy for the water to split into its ionic components. Hydrogen, being positively charged, moves toward the cathode and oxygen, being negatively charged, moves toward the anode. When hydrogen cations hit the cathode, they get reduced and form H2 gas. Oxygen hits the anode and gets oxidized, forming O2 gas.

Now the quantity of the separation is proportional to the amount of electric charge you send across. This means that the more current you send through, the more hydrogen gas you get (within limits of course). So we can all have electrolytic cells producing hydrogen to burn for our cars and homes, right? Well…not exactly. The amount of energy you get out from burning the products of the electrolysis is not greater then the amount of energy it takes to do the separation. Classical theory predicts the maximum efficiency to be between 80 and 94% See here for details

This key point is where Stanley Meyers claimed to make a breakthrough. Using his own design of an electrolytic cell, he said he gets somewhere around 1700% efficiency.

His design for the cell is different from contemporary cells in that they utilize tiny amounts of current. Half an amp, for his 1700% efficient design. The trick, it seems, is to use high voltages with low current and PULSE the current using large surface area electrodes.

Why does this supposedly work? You’ve got me there. Perhaps there’s some weird interaction driven by the strong force at the electrodes? Maybe you cold fusion enthusiasts ought to look into it with high pressure confinement. Maybe then you’ll see your fusion.

Whatever the case, and whatever your current opinion is, first watch these two videos. The first is just 2 minutes long, the second is a more serious 17 minute clip. THEN formulate your opinion. Of course I would also say you should visit the wikipedia article on Stanley Meyer

Video 1:

Video 2:

Obviously, I think that his ‘water fuel cell’ is pretty much a vat of crock. I am sure it is a conspiracy theorists dreamland, but then again, all the supposed “free energy” inventions are.

Except for mine of course. But that’s a secret.

P.S. If anyone reading this understands Japanese, could you please tell me what they are saying in this video?


By April 25, 2007 0 comments science news

Heat Kills Bacteria! Again…

In the December 2006 edition of Journal of Environmental Health a paper entitled “Microbial Inactivation by Microwave Radiation in the Home Environment”, by Gabriel Bitton, talks about a novel way to kill bacteria. Microwave them! Apparently, the optimum method is to microwave for 2 minutes allowing for maximum bacteria frying and minimal sponge burning.

I wonder how novel it is to exploit heat as a method for killing bacteria though. If I’m not mistaken, there was a paper last year which reported using a hot iron as a method to kill anthrax delivered via snail mail. Both methods seem to utilize the same general idea, heat kills bacteria. Off the top of my head, here are some other ideas to kill bacteria in sponges, ie future research papers.

Other useful Ideas To Kill/Remove Bacteria From Sponges

  • Submerge sponge in boiling water.
  • Submerge sponge in bleach.
  • Submerge sponge in antibacterial hand-wash.
  • Buy a new sponge.

If you have more suggestions, feel free to share them.

Note 1: Brought to my attention by Steve Ritter from this Newscripts page:


By March 6, 2007 0 comments science news

Recent Photos of Saturn, Enceladus, Hyperion, Dione, Titan

Here are some recent photos from NASA’s Cassini-Huygens satellite.

Above: Saturn

Above: Enceladus

Above: Hyperion

Above: Water geysers from Enceladus

Above: Telesto

Above: Dione

Above: Enceladus in front of Titan

Above: Titan

I was under the impression that Cassini doesn’t take color pictures, so take NASA’s color photos with a grain of salt.

Note 1: NASA’s Cassini-Huygens Photo Contest website:


By January 24, 2007 0 comments science news