UNL physicist receives award for research on magnetic materials

Released on 07/22/2008, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., July 22nd, 2008 —
Kirill Belashchenko (color JPEG)
Kirill Belashchenko (color JPEG)

Kirill Belashchenko sees more to magnets and spin than just MP3s and iPods. His work on a new theory may lead to spin-based devices that will be faster than ever at reading and analyzing data. The assistant professor of physics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has received a $100,000 Cottrell Award from the Research Corp., which will support his research on magnetic materials.

As a researcher in the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, Belashchenko focuses on the theory for computers that use spintronics, which is based on quantum spin of electrons rather than charge.

Belashchenko is developing a new technique for studying magnetic materials at finite temperatures. He will design techniques to describe the magnetic, electronic, and transport properties of magnetic materials, like iron, at temperatures starting from absolute zero (approximately 460 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) and up to the Curie point, which is the temperature above which a ferromagnetic material it loses its characteristic ferromagnetic ability (ferromagnetism is the "normal" form of magnetism, as in refrigerator magnets).

Breakthroughs in this area of nanotechnology won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2007. Two scientists discovered an effect called giant magnetoresistance, or GMR, for the big changes in electrical resistance that are linked to small changes in a magnetic field. The discovery made possible MP3 players and other devices that store data or video appearing since the late 1990s.

Belashchenko's work may play a role in the design of smaller, denser memory storage devices that use electron spin in scanning heads that are no thicker than a few nanometers (a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter). But many questions remain about how magnetic fields affect the flow of current -- or resistance -- in materials, especially iron and other magnetic metals.

"This has fundamental importance and applications for spintronics," he said "We hope we can design new devices based on spin, to replace transistors in information processing. Many people are talking about spintronic computers taking less power and working faster. But it's very far off. No one even knows if it will be possible. It's very early in the research."

As he continues teaching courses in graduate quantum mechanics and statistical physics, Belashchenko and his team will be looking for ways to describe the electronic structure of magnetic materials, "with as few approximations as possible." The teaching part of his 2008 Cottrell Award honors his proposal to assess students' progress and coordinate curriculum in ways that will ensure more consistency of concepts across all classes in his department at UNL.

Belashchenko studied at the Institute of Steel and Alloys in Moscow, received a Ph.D. at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow and spent three years at the Ames Lab, a U.S. Department of Energy site in Ames, Iowa.

The second foundation established in the United States and the only one devoted to the advancement of science, Research Corp. was founded in 1912. The foundation is the fulfillment of the philanthropic concept of Frederick Gardner Cottrell, a scientist, inventor and philanthropist, who established Research Corp. with the assistance of Charles Doolittle Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

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