Jian-Ping Wang likes to think small. Immeasurably small — as in the realm of electrons.
But that’s led to some big discoveries for Wang, a physicist and engineer who joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 2002. He has spearheaded research resulting in more than 200 scientific publications, 39 patents, three start-up companies and breakthroughs that could revolutionize medical and environmental testing, including biosensors that could detect disease from a single drop of body fluid. Along the way, Wang could place Minnesota at the center of the next big thing in applied science.
Wang, 47, says he came to U with a vision to create an industry that would rival California’s Silicon Valley.
He calls it “Spin Valley,” and he’s not talking about public relations.
Wang is a world leader in the cutting-edge field of “spintronics” and its progeny, giant magnetoresistance. This quantum mechanism effect harnesses the power of magnetism and the movement, or spin, of electrons — rather than just their electrical charge, the basis for current microprocessors. The technology, researchers believe, could one day make today’s processors and data storage devices obsolete.
“Minnesota has the advantage,” Wang said of the nascent field. “We’re leading.”
From his office at the U, Wang heads the Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces and Novel Architectures (C-SPIN), a collaboration of 33 experts from 19 universities, including top-tier institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University.
C-SPIN started two years ago with a $28 million grant from Semiconductor Research Corp., a global research collaborative made up of private companies, universities and government agencies. It committed about $40 million a year for five years to fund six research centers collectively known as STARnet, short for Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research Network.
Their task: Find a path to the next generation of microelectronics, which are now reaching the limits of existing materials.
Devices using spintronics are leading candidates to supersede or augment the semiconductor technology that powers most microchips today, according to Gil Vandentop, an Intel employee and STARnet’s executive director. That could mean a technology revolution in data processing and data storage.
“There still are a number of inventions and breakthroughs needed before it will be a viable technology,” Vandentop said. “So that’s why we have Jian-Ping Wang working on it. He’s a leader in the field.”
C-SPIN’s sponsors include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — one of the founders of the Internet — as well as a long list of industry partners including IBM, Intel Corp. and Texas Instruments.
The U will own any intellectual property derived from the research, but in exchange for their backing, the sponsors may use it royalty-free for their core businesses, Vandentop said.
‘You feel useful’
Wang was born in China’s mountainous northwest, called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He wanted to study biology but showed such talent at physics that school officials routed him into an undergraduate physics program without even requiring an entrance exam. He initially studied theoretical physics, but his professors pushed him toward magnetism, and he said by his senior year he was hooked on a field that presents both fundamental mysteries and practical applications.
“You feel useful, right. A lot of time you cannot touch some physics topic directly,” Wang said.
After earning his doctorate in Beijing in 1995, he spent seven years helping to build a magnetic research program in Singapore before the U convinced him to move to Minnesota with his wife, Wenjing (Lilia), daughter Shuyu (Clara), 17, and son Ziyu (Frankie), 13. Wenjing has a master’s in art and formerly worked as an editor in Singapore.
Wang joked that he his family was reluctant to leave tropical Singapore, but that Minnesota’s weather reminded them of their hometown. Actually, he said, he was drawn by the strength of U’s magnetic research program and the quality of his colleagues in computer engineering.
“Minnesota really attracts a lot of good people here,” he said.
From lab to market
In one recent project, Wang headed a team of researchers from the U, Mayo Clinic and several Minnesota companies that invented a portable, magnetic bio-sensing device that can detect 10 health care indicators for different diseases — from malaria to cancer — in a single drop of blood or urine. It won $120,000 last year in the Nokia Sensing XChallenge, and Wang says it could be useful in both human and veterinary medicine.
The device also can detect heavy metals in lake water to a fine resolution. One of his students used it to test for mercury in a Minnesota lake and found that although the lake met clean water standards, it was startlingly close to the line, Wang said.
The device will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval, Wang said. The technology has been licensed to a St. Paul start-up called Zepto Life Technology.
Meantime, Wang’s research team has made a new generation of the device that plugs into a smartphone or tablet, making it usable at home, and they’re working on a smaller, simpler and more powerful version that transmits data wirelessly.
Wang’s work also led to the creation of Niron Magnetics Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., which produces permanent magnets for use in motors, generators and wind turbines, as well as biomedical devices such as a portable MRI system — all without the use of rare-earth metals, which can raise serious environmental hazards.
“This magnet saves the environment,” Wang said.
Wang says the potential of spintronics is limitless.
For years, he said, engineers focused on the electrical charge of electrons. That led Bell Labs to develop a kind of switch, called a transistor, that produced more than 50 years of discoveries, including computers, smartphones and implantable heart devices. Silicon Valley can trace its roots to the transistor, he said.
But in addition to charge, electrons have a feature called spin-up or spin-down. As a result, Wang said, electrons can act like tiny magnets, pointing up or down. This was discovered about 100 years ago, he said, but because it took place at the minuscule “nanoscale” level, it was hard to work with.
That began to change after 1988, when two European physicists discovered an effect called giant magnetoresistance. In effect, they could control electrical resistance by making a sandwich of magnetic materials with a nonmagnetic layer in the middle. That can allow computer scientists to create ultra high speed, low energy switches that can be used to encode data and run computers.
“Now, for the first time, you have fundamental way to manipulate, or to link, the magnetic behavior with the electronic behaviors,” Wang said.
The discovery resulted in sensors for hard disk drives that read more densely packed data with fewer errors.
Even so, funders were slow to back the new technology. In 2004, Wang said, a paper he submitted on “nonvolatile magnetic logic” was rejected within a month. But after the work on giant magnetoresistance won the 2007 Nobel Prize, the field took off, he said, driven by the need to replace semiconductor technology as it reaches is limits.
Now Wang is working on a new computer central processing unit he calls the Spintronic CPU. It would provide both logical functions and persistent data storage while using substantially less energy than current systems.
Meantime, Wang said he’s happy to spin off biomedical applications that his group has worked on for a decade. He said he expects new bio-sensing devices to test for more than 100 health indicators so that people have regular, early warnings of potential problems.
It’s technology, he said, that “can tell you that you should pay attention, OK, you should prepare,” Wang said.
That may mean, “Just drink more green tea,” he said, Or it may require more drastic interventions.
“But as long as you know this, or your doctor know this, it will be much easier than something like late-stage [disease].”