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Stuart Parkin Revolutionized Disk Drive Storage

The director of the Max Planck Institute developed spintronic technologies

5 min read

man with glasses wearing a blue collared shirt and navy blazer posing for the camera with arms crossed against a green and blue background

Stuart Parkin, an IEEE Fellow, received the Draper Prize for Engineering from the U.S. National Academy of Engineering for developing spintronic technologies.

Stuart Parkin

Ours is a data-centric world. Many modern inventions and occupations rely on data. Artificial intelligence feasts on it. Machine learning identifies patterns within it. Internet of Things devices generate and transmit it. Genomics, bioinformatics, climate science, telecommunications, finance, health care and so many more fields depend on it.

For massive datasets to be of use, they must be stored somehow. More than 70 percent of the world’s data is kept in arrays of magnetic disk drives—all of which use so-called spintronic technologies developed by Stuart Parkin.

Stuart Parkin

Employer Max Planck Institute for Microstructure Physics in Halle, Germany

Title Director

Member Grade Fellow

Alma Mater Trinity College Cambridge, in England

The director of the Max Planck Institute for Microstructure Physics, in Halle, Germany, Parkin is the most recent recipient of the Draper Prize for Engineering, which is considered to be the highest U.S. award for the discipline.

Short for spin transport electronics, spintronics harnesses both the electron’s intrinsic magnetic property—its spin—and its electric charge to improve electronic devices. Spintronics can make them more energy-efficient, faster to access data, or capable of storing huge amounts of information.

Traditionally, the field of electronics has relied merely on manipulating the electron’s charge. Spintronics, however, also leverages electrons’ “natural” magnetic moment.

Through the Draper Prize, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering honors an engineer whose accomplishment has “significantly impacted society by improving the quality of life, providing the ability to live freely and comfortably, and/or permitting access to information.”

“It’s always a great honor and surprise to receive an award, as there are many fantastic scientists who could have been given the prize,” says Parkin, an IEEE Fellow and NAE member. “This one is particularly special, as there’s an incredible series of past winners whose major contributions to technologies have made the world a better place. To be included with those wonderful scientists is amazing.”

Superconductors and magnetic disk drives

Parkin holds a Humboldt professorship at Martin Luther University, also in Halle.

He invented spintronic technologies at IBM, where he worked for 32 years. Most of that time was spent at the company’s famed Almaden research laboratory, in San Jose, Calif. IBM built the lab three years after hiring Parkin.

When he began in 1982, he says, IBM employed about 10,000 people who worked on magnetic disk drives for storage. His assignment was a dream job, he says: Conduct exploratory research that could help make the company’s storage technology better.

He was at the right place at the right time, he says: “Just the year before some new organic metals had been discovered that, under pressure, became superconducting at relatively low temperatures.

“It was great fun and the beginning of something quite new.”

He collaborated with physicists and chemists at IBM who ultimately discovered a family of organic superconductors in 1983. The work progressed for the next few years, but after that, Parkin says, IBM decided it no longer needed to keep a few dozen people working on just organic metals.

His supervisors assigned him to lead a group researching magnetism for more efficient data storage. He was already familiar with magnetism, the focus of his physics Ph.D. thesis.

Parkin immersed himself in all things magnetoelectronics, consulting with experts from around the world and attending conferences. He was fascinated by work in magnetic multilayers, which are materials made of thin films with alternating magnetic and nonmagnetic layers.

Research at the time showed the materials had “interesting properties that could make it possible to store far more data, far more efficiently,” Parkin says.

A two-year wait for a molecular beam epitaxy machine

Parkin decided the IBM team needed more advanced film deposition techniques to build magnetic multilayer structures. He asked management to purchase a US $1.25 million molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) machine, which could make precision fabrication of thin films.

The managers approved his request, but it took two years for the machine to be delivered. It was scheduled to be housed in a dream lab Parkin had designed within a new research center that sat atop a hill a few kilometers from the Almaden location.

“The machine was all set up, and the lab was about to open, when suddenly a manager turned to me and said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t know anything about thin films. We’re going to hire an expert.’ Someone from Westinghouse came in, and suddenly it was his lab; not mine,” Parkin recalls.

Parkin says he was undeterred, but he was also without the pricey MBE machine. So he raided an equipment storage room filled with machinery IBM no longer used. Using an ultrahigh vacuum chamber, an ion pump, and a special flange—along with magnetron sputtering, an antiquated vacuum deposition method—he managed to build his own film deposition system. He could pump out 20 different multilayered structures daily to run experiments on thin films and materials.

“I could make a lot of different films by myself, immediately test hypotheses, and make lots of discoveries,” he says. “In retrospect, losing the lab was a good thing. The MBE system was extremely time-consuming to use, and my outmoded sputtering system was faster and more effective.”

Ultimately, he developed three distinct spintronic technologies. One of them—a method to achieve very high levels of the tunneling magnetoresistance phenomenon in materials at room temperature—unlocked a massive increase in digital data storage capabilities.

“When you discover something new, you have novel insights into how the world works.”

When IBM shifted from hardware to software, Parkin became a consulting professor at Stanford, where he met his wife, Claudia Felser, a German chemist and materials engineer. Felser soon joined Planck as a scientist in residence, and not long after, Parkin learned that the Max Planck Institute was looking for a director to reorganize and revitalize its 30-year-old microstructure physics group.

The institute, which is funded by federal and state governments, is dedicated to furthering research in the natural sciences, life sciences, and humanities. It maintains 84 individual institutes and other facilities worldwide.

Parkin accepted the position and moved to Halle.

The institute “is like IBM was in the old days, in that the philosophy is to give researchers sufficient funding so they can focus on moving science forward,” he says. “We want to do fundamental science, with a view to impacting the world, technologically in the next 5, 10, and 20 years.”

Parkin says he applies the same philosophy when advising Ph.D. students at Martin Luther University.

“The job is to encourage them to do the impossible. What a beautiful thing,” he says. “It’s great to see so many of them be creative and go beyond what they believed was possible.

“When you discover something new, you have novel insights into how the world works. That’s what I hope the students come to appreciate.”

Spintronics increases access to knowledge

Growing up in Manchester, England, and then Edinburgh, Parkin was shy, he says, spending much of his time reading.

“I like to think nowadays paper books aren’t needed as much because everything is digital,” he says. “It’s a wonder to think I played some role in enabling that, because it makes all this knowledge more accessible to all of us. I find that amazing.”

Books weren’t Parkin’s only companions when he was young, however. He was drawn to plants and amassed a collection of cacti in particular. He marveled at how they required only sun and just a bit of water to thrive. It led him to wonder about the underlying biology.

“I find nature so beautiful and incredible,” he says. “I wanted to understand how it could be that such diverse forms, colors, and a multitude of shapes could proliferate. Nature is so simple and yet so complex.”

His fascination with the natural world led him to push the frontiers of technology and engineering, essentially to understand more of the world, he says: “That’s what science is for me.”

Parkin received a scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge, in England, where he studied physics and theoretical physics. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics simultaneously in 1977, then earned a Ph.D. in 1980. He moved to Paris to complete his postdoctoral research in organic superconductivity at the urging of his mentor Richard Friend. Two years later, Parkin was hired by IBM.

IEEE is a voice for science and engineering

As a scientist, Parkin is acutely aware that “most people don’t appreciate the technologies that sustain their lives—from sewage systems, reliable electricity, and clean water to inventions like the iPhone. They make our lives easier, but they all depend on myriad technologies that took years of research.”

Supporting such research, and the engineers and scientists behind it, is why he continues to be part of IEEE, he says, as the organization is a voice for science.

“We need more representation of how important science and engineering are to solving the world’s challenges,” Parkin says. “They are a major key to making the world a better place.”

The Conversation (2)
Michael Gaidis
Michael Gaidis09 Apr, 2024

Nice article for a creative and fun scientist among the best out there. Stuart can brighten a room and shows interest in any problem-solving, from the mundane to the most difficult. He was a memorable and particularly positive influence and role model when I worked with him at IBM about 15 years ago. I miss hearing the hum and keyboard, and seeing the quick smile. Congratulations and best wishes, Stuart!

Robert Klammer
Robert Klammer04 Apr, 2024

Mr. Parkin is a very funny guy with a distinct, shall we say, viewpoint.