Chemist Puts New Spin on Organic Materials

Michael Therien headshot

At a very basic level, the digital technologies we depend on everyday operate by manipulating the charge of electrons. But a Duke chemist is searching for materials that would allow engineers to build electronics that can do more than that — which could open the door to faster computing, increased data storage, even entirely new kinds of technology.

“In information storage, manipulating the ones and zeroes of binary data fundamentally involves controlling the charge of the electron,” said Michael Therien, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “My research aims to develop new approaches that involve not just manipulating electronic charge, but manipulating the electron’s spin.”

Therien was awarded a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship to support this research. “I am extraordinarily thrilled,” he said. Another Duke professor, Romance Studies’ Helen Solterer, was also among the 2020 fellows.

Therien’s work is part of the emerging field of “spintronics.” “If you can selectively manipulate electrons’ spin, you can potentially develop quantum technologies that revolutionize information storage and transfer,” Therien explained.

However, spintronic research has predominantly focused on inorganic ferromagnets — magnetic materials that are not carbon-based. Therien is instead developing organic materials that could be the basis for spintronic devices. They would not need a magnetic electrode to function. They could work at room temperature and provide new approaches to generate, propagate and transmit spin currents in processable soft, organic materials, opening up new applications beyond those possible with hard, inorganic materials.

“It’s an appealing approach to process and carry information at high frequencies and low voltages,” Therien said. Such organic spintronic materials could enable the development of spintronic components that have novel functions, such as optically gated spin transistors and ultrafast switchable memory devices that do not require current.

The Guggenheim Fellowship will allow Therien to spend significant time over the next few years with key research collaborators in the field, particularly Ron Naaman at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

“The Guggenheim Fellowship provides an opportunity to interact with research colleagues in a more personal and sustained way,” he said. “It fosters the exchange of ideas and provides opportunities to design cutting-edge experiments.”

Naaman’s laboratory features unique equipment that aids Therien’s research and provides an environment where his Ph.D. students have been able to translate their unique organic materials into novel spintronic device prototypes.