SCOTTISH scientists have discovered magnetising gold could lead to a new generation of electronics making computers faster, smaller and more powerful.

The team of researchers led by scientists at St Andrews University carried out a groundbreaking experiment to test what happens in a device where a very thin layer of a superconductor, a material that carries electrical current without generating heat, is sandwiched between layers of a magnetic material and gold.

The scientists found that under certain conditions the layer of gold becomes magnetic due to charge carriers flowing out of the superconductor into the metal.

Experts says the ability to generate and manipulate magnetic currents in this way has the potential for applications in new types of electronic devices in future. The process involved a large team of scientists led by Dr Machiel Flokstra and Professor Steve Lee at St Andrews, and other experts from the universities of Bath, Leeds, Royal Holloway and Bedford College in London, the ISIS Science and Technology Facility in Oxfordshire, and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland.

Flokstra, of the School of Physics and Astronomy, who led the experiment, said: “Superconductors are materials that, if cooled sufficiently, lose their resistance, that is, they carry electricity without dissipating heat.

“This is possible because the electrons that carry the electrical charge bind together into pairs that are able to move without losing energy.

“Each electron is itself like a tiny bar magnet, since these charged electrons spin about their own axes.

“When they form into superconducting pairs these electronic ‘spins’ align oppositely, so that the magnetic fields cancel out.

“It transpires that in these new devices these pairs of electrons can be separated into two currents moving in opposite directions, one with magnetic fields – spins – pointing up and one with them pointing down.

“The idea of generating ‘spin currents’ is the basis of the emerging field of spintronics.

“In conventional electronics only electrical charges can be manipulated, but it is hoped in the field of spintronics that electron spins can be controlled, leading to advanced electronic devices.”

Professor Simon Bending, head of the department of physics at the University of Bath, described the results of their experiment as “groundbreaking” which could lead to faster, more powerful computers.

He explained: “This is a groundbreaking piece of research. We believe for the first time we have observed spin accumulation arising from a current of spin-carrying pairs of superconducting electrons that can be controlled by manipulating the magnetisation direction in a ferromagnetic control electrode.

“This is the first step to realising superconducting spintronic devices that operate without generating heat and could be the basis for entirely new types of computers that are faster, smaller and more powerful than before.”