Environment & Engineering

Putting energy into a global problem

Published Feb 3, 2017

The amount of energy consumed by the world’s data centres—which store billions of gigabytes of information—is expected to treble in the next decade, putting an enormous strain on energy supplies, and creating a significant impact on global warming.

But a recent discovery by a team of Victoria University researchers may hold the solution, thanks to their groundbreaking research into Rare Earth Nitrides (RENs)—and Viclink is working closely alongside them to help bring their technology to the world.

RENs first burst onto the scientific scene in the middle of last century, displaying not only interesting electronic properties, but magnetic properties as well. “It was hoped, even back then, that these properties could be used in a wide range of applications,” says Dr Ben Ruck, Senior Lecturer in Physics, in Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. “However, it’s only been in the last ten years—due to advances in thin film fabrication with ultra-high vacuum based technology—that we’ve been able to really start investigating the material’s potential.” 

Ben, whose research focuses on growing thin films of novel materials to determine their structural and electronic properties, is part of a team which is exploring how RENs may be useful in the development of technologies such as MRAM (Magnetic Random Access Memory) that uses electron spin, not charge, to store data. Because data is retained when the power is switched off, a device can be faster, more versatile and use less energy. 

Other members of the core team include Dr Franck Natali and Emeritus Professor Joe Trodahl, while the wider team involves collaboration with numerous students, postdocs, and academics at Victoria and the MacDiarmid Institute—and at other institutions in New Zealand and around the world. “We’ve spent a lot of time working with theorists,” says Ben, “taking their calculations and using them to suggest experiments, then using our experiments to help refine their calculations. 

So what problem does their research potentially solve? Every internet activity—whether it’s ‘liking’ something on Facebook, posting a ‘selfie’ on Instagram, or streaming a movie—involves huge amounts of data, all stored in data centres across the world. “Traditional silicon-based computing is struggling to keep up with the demand,” Ben explains. “The architecture gets too hot, uses too much energy and is now pushing up against the full extent of its speed capability.” He says the computer industry is now urgently looking for new materials to make memory that’s compatible with the way new low-power superconducting computer systems are being built. 

“We believe our materials can be used to make MRAM that will not only tick all the required boxes—reduced energy consumption, increased data processing and storage speed—but will do so in a way that is superior to any other materials currently being investigated.” Ben says that their early-stage research shows that thin films of RENs have the right properties to make memory elements that are compatible with the required superconducting computing logic architecture.  What’s more, their electrical conductivity can be controlled to manage energy and heat. 

Viclink is helping the team to investigate the commercial potential of their research. “They have been an amazing support throughout this process,” says Ben. “It feels like they are part of our team. They’ve helped us to gain patents and investment that has enabled us to keep carrying our research forward.” Most recently, Viclink helped them to successfully apply for $100,000 of investment from KiwiNet’s Pre-Seed Accelerator fund (which Viclink matched), to secure the IP, carry out in-depth market research, and then execute on the best identified commercial strategy. 

One such strategy is already being investigated, after Ben and Viclink’s Dr Anne Barnett flew to the United States for talks with a potential business partner, a major digital superconducting company. 

“Seeing your ideas blossom into something real just adds to what I do in the lab—and I think it adds credibility as a lecturer. I love the idea that we are creating jobs for our students, and that our research could make a real impact on the world. We are very excited to see where this idea takes us!” 

For more information, email Ben at ben.ruck@vuw.ac.nz or Paul Geraghty at Wellington UniVentures.