"We need to get out of our comfort zone"

25 January 2019

Professor Jairo Sinova came from Texas A&M University to Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in 2014 to take up an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. He is one of the world's leading researchers in the field of spintronics and has already set-up the Spin Phenomena Interdisciplinary Center (SPICE) and the Interdisciplinary Spintronics Research (INSPIRE Group) at Mainz University.

"I just gave my first lecture in German," says Professor Jairo Sinova, walking down the corridor to his office. "It wasn’t easy, but it turned out all right."

Banners and posters adorn the walls of the corridor. The SPICE logo is everywhere. Jairo Sinova founded the Spin Phenomena Interdisciplinary Center when he joined JGU in 2014. There are posters depicting the variety of events hosted at SPICE. "We try to make eye-catching posters to get people to stop and check them out," says Sinova. Illustrated on one of the posters is a Dutch oil painting of a burning mill – as a deliberately wry reference to spin, the angular momentum of elementary particles. Just down the corridor is another striking poster. Under the title Antiferromagnetic Spintronics, it illustrates a demonstrator holding a megaphone. Behind him, a man holds up a large placard with a magnet crossed out in red. This refers to a revolutionary new computer technology, but more on that in due course.

Interdisciplinary research

Jairo Sinova joined Mainz University from Texas A&M University in 2014. He had been granted Germany's most highly endowed research award, an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. These professorships are intended to attract top international researchers to German universities.

Already in 2003, Sinova had established his reputation by predicting the intrinsic spin Hall effect. And he has been one of the most respected and well-known theoretical physicists in the field of semiconductor spintronics ever since. However, he is characteristically modest regarding his achievement, in passing merely mentioning that as a junior professor he made a breakthrough that opened up a whole new range of possibilities: "I created a new field."

"When I arrived in Mainz, it felt like I was back at the beginning again. My aim was to see if I could make a second breakthrough." Sinova established a variety of new research structures at JGU, including SPICE and the INSPIRE Group, both of which he heads. Both these institutions are interdisciplinary not only in name, but also in practice. Here researchers working in theoretical and applied science in the fields of chemistry, biology, materials science, and physics all work closely together. "To achieve a breakthrough, I really need to do interdisciplinary research," emphasizes Sinova. "If we really hope to achieve something, we need to get out of our comfort zone."

Computer technology at a dead end

At the age of 16, Jairo Sinova left his home country Spain and traveled to the US, to Texas, as part of a student exchange program. "The plan was to stay for twelve months, but I was there for 25 years. English became my second mother tongue." At 42, Sinova packed his bags for a second time. Now he was heading for Germany. The new language still is a challenge. "German is difficult, I still make a lot of grammar mistakes," he admits smilingly. "But I can communicate quite well." When he talks about his research, however, he tends to switch to English.

His field of research, spintronics, is concerned with various ways of cleverly using the properties of electrons. They not only transport electrical charges, but also have another measurable quantity known as spin. There are two variants of spin, spin up and spin down, thus making electrons suitable as a binary information carriers.

"Today’s computer technology has reached a level that makes further progress impossible. It has simply reached its limit," explains Sinova. Computers devour vast amounts of energy. "Making 30 Internet searches through Google consumes as much energy as boiling a liter of water. And Google alone receives 3.5 trillion queries a day." Sinova has another example up his sleeve: "The human brain needs 20 watts to recognize a face while a computer needs a million."

Computers also can't always keep up when it comes to speed. "If I send data to America, it will get there via light pulses in cables. Once there, however, the pulses need to be slowed down for electronic processing. The result is a tailback. Electronic processes are fast, but light is much faster."

Antiferromagnetic materials

The limitations of both processes could be overcome with the help of antiferromagnetic materials, materials that apparently have no extrinsically detectable magnetic properties. "In 2014, we predicted their potential. This was a year before it was actually demonstrated. That was exciting." The processes are 1,000 times faster than in a conventional computer and they consume much less energy.

"Binary systems compute in just ones and zeros, in other words, yes and no. Our current research moves into the field of quantum mechanics, meaning our materials can achieve a third 'perhaps' state. This provides them with an efficiency similar to that of the synapses in the human brain. In the future, we might even be able to construct a computer that learns so fast that it can decide whether it needs our help or not, whether we should stay for support or leave shortly after it has been switched on. Now that's both exciting and frightening at the same time."

Anyone involved in such research must recognize that walling themselves off behind the boundaries of their field is not an option. "We need to get experts from all fields to get involved in such developments, even from anthropology and philosophy. What we need is a mutual exchange." That is what Sinova promotes on all levels. Through SPICE he organizes interdisciplinary workshops and conferences and as a Fellow of the Gutenberg Research College (GRC) he supports interdisciplinary dialog.

"Recently, I invited eleven academics to meet up in a vineyard. Unlike most workshops, we didn't just come together for lectures and then return home. We spent several days together, got to know each other, and exchanged ideas. We should do this more often."

Mainz is now in the spotlight

Jairo Sinova made his second breakthrough in Mainz. "When I moved to Mainz, the reaction of my colleagues was: 'Mainz, where on earth is that?' That clearly has changed. The city is now on the radar of experts from all over the world. They come here because they have heard of SPICE, because they know what we do. The only similar institutions are in California and in the Netherlands."

Sinova has himself come to love the region. "When I came here, I had a rather grim and austere picture of Germany, but the opposite is true. People here are open and friendly and have a great sense of humor. The countryside is beautiful. And this is a fantastic wine-growing region. There is a lot to enjoy here. I, myself, am a great advertisement for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. If a German says that life here is great, people abroad don't pay much attention. A Spaniard, on the other hand, saying that the quality of life in Mainz is excellent, is quite another thing."