CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered a "dielectric" characteristic of an existing compound that might be used in the electronics industry to address heat buildup, one of the fundamental limiting factors in making small computers and other electronic devices.

The findings, just published in the journal Advanced Materials, may be a very important advance leading to a new generation of smaller, faster microelectronics based on improved technology - for computers, data storage, even cell phones. It may also improve the performance of some devices.

"This is unprecedented. This material shows a very large magnetodielectric response at room temperature and under very low magnetic fields," said Mas Subramanian, the Milton Harris Professor of Materials Science at OSU and Signature Faculty Fellow of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute. "It's the first time any material has been shown to do this. It could be a very significant step towards limiting heat problems in many electronic devices and making them even smaller."

In computers and some other devices, a substantial amount of that heat comes from magneto-resistive heads that are being "read" by physical contact among some of their components. Aside from preventing further size reductions, the heat can also interfere with device performance.

But the OSU scientists, in collaboration with DuPont researchers, discovered an unknown property of lutetium iron oxide. They found that if a small magnetic field is applied at room temperature, the compound has electronic characteristics that could be used to develop a "contactless" magnetic sensing device. In a computer, for instance, it could be used to create a head that could read or write information on a disk without physically contacting it, virtually eliminating the production of heat from that aspect of the electronic device.

"In the constant attempt to make computers and other electronics that are smaller, heat has always been one of the primary obstacles," said Arthur Sleight, a co-author on the study and professor emeritus of chemistry at OSU.

"For a material to be able to eliminate the heat problem from one part of your device is important," he said. "For that material to function properly at room temperature is even more useful. That makes it applicable to the wide range of consumer electronics."

The OSU scientists said there is a great deal of interest in the electronics industry in materials that could accomplish this goal. Devices fabricated with such materials could store information through both electric and magnetic polarization, creating improved storage systems and more freedom in designing memory elements.

The lutetium iron oxide used in these experiments is based on a compound that is fairly expensive, the scientists said, but other "rare earth" elements such as ytterbium might also be used, they said.

Continued research is needed to produce the material as a thin film for actual device production, the researchers said, and it still needs to be developed and tested in working electronics. But the fundamental studies already completed suggest those steps should be possible, they said.

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Arthur Sleight,