The two winners of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics -- Albert Fert, of the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, and Peter Grünberg, of the Institute of Solid State Research at the Jülich Research Center in Germany - made their contributions to the computer age as far back as 1988. Now that the smallest commercially available hard drive is an IPod, the inventors that led to its development, and many yet to come, have received the grand prix of awards.
Fert and Grünberg foresaw that computer technology would reduce the size of our world, as more and more information demanded storage. Information is stored in differently magnetized areas on a hard drive, or memory. Some direction of magnetization corresponds to the binary zero, other directions to the binary value of one.
With the demand for smaller storage units as digital technology moved forward into desktop, laptop, and handheld computers, as well as music and video storage, the need for more sensitive information readers was evident, but just making smaller magnetic readers wasn't enough to produce dependability or quality.
Fert and Grünberg, working separately, began experimenting with nanomaterials and the directionality of the date stored. They found that layering nano-slices of iron (magnetic) and chromium (non-magnetic) resulted in a greater sensitivity to the memory's magnetic fields than with single magnetic material. With the nanomaterials, there was more freedom for magnetic direction to stray, a phenomenon very unwelcome when using traditional metals. However, in using nanomaterials in sandwich fashion, significantly greater electrical energy was produced, which compensated for the stray electrons of magnetic material. Thus, a reader sensitive enough to deliver data from very small memory surfaces was created.
The Fert and Grünberg discovery is know as Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR), and its technology is used to read all the tiny memories in your hard drives, laptops, PDA's, CD and DVD players, MP3 players and most likely all of the I-Products. GMR is also the daddy of spintronics, a technology that takes advantage of the energy caused by spinning electrons.
Let's all be grateful to Fert and Grünberg. Their foresight and persistence has made unmeasurable amounts of information, music, visual arts, and communication so accessible to so many of us. And the best is probably yet to come.
From The Nobel Prize in Physics 2007 Press Release
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2007 Information for the Public