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1/25/2002
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Follow The Bouncing Ball To Storage

Russian scientists say they may have created the next big thing in computer memory: flexible, transparent sheets of carbon, the first pure nonmetallic magnets to work at room temperature. The material could lead to cheap, durable, extremely high-density storage.

Physicist Tatiana Makarova says she created the stuff in a fortuitous accident while trying to produce new high-temperature superconductors. She was experimenting with buckyballs--exotic, soccer-ball-shaped spheres of carbon atoms--trying to force them to join together in a sheet by superheating and pressurizing them. The resulting material didn't superconduct but was magnetic at room temperature, and up to 200 degrees Celsius. The highest temperature anyone had ever gotten a nonmetallic magnet to work before was at a frigid-255 Celsius.

Room-temperature organic magnets are much lighter and more flexible than metallic magnets, making them ideal for use in electronic devices. They also have semiconducting and insulating properties, making them potentially useful in chipbuilding. What's more, Makarova and her team from the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg have found that the material is photo-responsive, changing its magnetic properties when a light is shined on it. That could make it useful as an optical storage device.

"It's very interesting research," says Laszlo Mihaly, a professor of physics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who studies buckyballs. "Some of the bonds within the balls are broken up and linked between the balls, and this makes it kind of a network, and a weak magnet." Mihaly says buckyballs could prove important in developing other new materials, including superconducting transistors. "It's an integrated circuit that's flexible, cheap, and can be mass-produced."

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