Researchers from the Institut Català de Nanotecnologia (ICN), in Barcelona have demonstrated a new device that induces electron spin motion without net electric current. They call this device a 'ratchet', in analogy to a ratchet wrench which provides uniform rotation from oscillatory motion. The Spin Ratchets achieve directed spin transport in one direction, in the presence of an oscillating signal. Most important, this signal could be an oscillatory current that results from environmental charge noise; thus future devices based on this concept could function by gathering energy from the environment.

The ratchet efficiency can be very high - reported results show electron polarizations of the order of 50%, but they could easily exceed 90% with device design improvements. The spin ratchet, which relies on a single electron transistor with a superconducting island and normal metal leads, is able to discriminate the electron spin, one electron at a time. The devices can also function in a “diode” regime that resolves spin with nearly 100% efficacy and, given that they work at the single-electron level, they could be utilized to address fundamental questions of quantum mechanics in the solid state or to help prepare the path for ultrapowerful quantum or spin computers.

The main drawback of the devices is that they work at low temperature. However, this does not represent a problem for quantum computing applications as solid state implementations of quantum computers will most likely require similar working conditions. Future research at the ICN will focus on increasing the spin ratchet efficiency and testing different ratchet protocols to implement a working device at room temperature.

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