GMR occurs in materials consisting of two successive magnetic layers, separated by a very thin non-magnetic layer. In 1988 research groups led by Fert and Gruenberg noticed that these materials display very large changes in their electrical resistance when exposed to a magnetic field – much larger than the magnetoresistance seen in other materials.

An important feature of GMR devices is that they can be used to create a current of spin-polarized electrons in which the spin of most of the electrons points in the same direction. This has been harnessed by physicists around the world to create electronic circuits that exploit the spin of the electron -- and could someday lead to the creation of quantum computers that could outperform conventional computers by using the spin of electrons to store, transmit and process information. On a much more practical level, GMR has also led to an enormous increase in the data-storage capacity of devices such as hard-disk drives, which are all now equipped with read heads that exploit GMR.

Albert Fert spent most of his career at the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, where he did a PhD in physics in 1970 before becoming an assistant professor in 1970 and then professor of physics in 1976. Peter Gruenberg completed a PhD at the Technical University at Darmstadt, Germany in 1969 before joining the Institute for Solid State Physics at the Juelich Research Center 1972.

This is the fourth major award given to the pair for their GMR work. They have also been honored by the American Physical Society, the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics and the European Physical Society.

Fert and Gruenberg will share the $100 000 prize, which will be awarded later this year by the President of the State of Israel at the Knesset Building in Jerusalem.