Stuart Parkin Spintronics
Our contemporary online world is "largely possible" because of Stuart Parkin's groundbreaking research into spintronics. TAF

A British scientist has been awarded the 2014 Millenium Technology Prize worth €1 million (£824,000) after discovering a method to radically increase the data density of a computer's hard drive.

Stuart Parkin, an experimental physicist at the IBM Almaden Research Centre in California, has been credited with "transforming human access to knowledge" through his research into spintronics - a method of storing data that relies on the magnetic spin of electrons rather than their charge to store bits.

"The type of research that I carried out is called spintronics," Parkin said. "It's the notion that one can develop interesting new electronic devices - memory and potentially logic devices - by controlling the flow of electrons."

The innovations in spintronics pioneered by Parkin led to a thousand-fold increase in the data storage capacity of magnetic disk drives.

"Parkin's achievements have greatly facilitated the occurrence of the 'big data' revolution and significantly transformed human access to knowledge," said the prize's selection committee in a statement.

Successful field of nanotechnology

The independent foundation that awarded Parkin the prize, Technology Acadamy Finland (TAF), said that without Parkin's research, Facebook, Google, Amazon and other online services would not be possible.

"Our contemporary online world is largely possible because of these atomically-thin magnetic structures," TAF said. "Parkin's innovations have led to a huge expansion of data acquisition and storage capacities, which in turn have underpinned the evolution of large data centres and cloud services, social networks, music and film distribution online.

"We can now stream movies, use social media and search information on the internet because all that information is stored in magnetic disk drives in the cloud."

Parkin first proposed the technology in 1995 after making advances in magnetoresistive random-access memory (MRAM). According to TAF, spintronics is now one of the "most successful fields of nanotechnology yet."

A new means of computing

Parkin believes that the era of silicon-based electronics is coming to an end. Data storage on silicon devices at the scale that will be required in the future will no longer be possible.

"We need to find a new means of computing," Parkin said. "We can find inspiration in particular from the brain, from nature, where the brain can carry out a computing operation with a million times less energy than a typical silicon-based computer today.

"The notion is: Can we devise new types of computing devices that could support new computing architectures that would enable new types of computing much more energy efficiently?"