Hope for the Storage Starved

Believing that you can never be too rich, too thin or have enough storage, IBM Corp. researchers have created a new class of magnetic materials that could pave the way for hard drives and other data storage systems to store more than 100 times more data than existing technologies.

IBM’s breakthrough is based on a chemical reaction that causes individual magnetic particles, each composed of only a few thousand atoms, to automatically arrange themselves into well-ordered arrays. The particles’ uniform size and precise separation distance are important factors in increasing data density, says Currie Munce, director of storage systems and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

Mixing iron and platinum in a heated solution forms the particles and sets them in place. Reheating the particles inside a vacuum then locks them in position. “The iron and platinum atoms rearrange themselves from a useless form that doesn’t retain its magnetic orientation to a very useful one that does,” Munce says.

The particles, which have a four-nanometre diameter, are less than half the size of the magnetic grains used in today’s densest hard drives. The particles’ tiny size, combined with their precise positioning, means researchers can pack more data on a given amount of surface area. “Smaller and more uniform-size magnetic particles allow smaller data bits,” Munce says. “A more uniform particle size also allows smaller bits to be more easily and accurately detected with existing signal detection and error-correction schemes.”

While the technology works well inside IBM’s laboratory, the company needs to resolve several technical and business questions before the technology appears in commercial storage products. Yet to be determined are the material’s real-world reliability and durability characteristics, Munce says. “These are things that will have to be worked out in the months ahead,” he says. Another potential pitfall: moving to the technology would require drive manufacturers to switch to another method of spraying magnetic material onto disk media. The retooling costs involved in such a changeover could slow the technology’s introduction and drive up product prices, particularly for early adopters.

Still, Munce is optimistic about the technology’s potential to create smaller and higher-capacity storage products. “As the need for storage grows more urgent, along with the need for more portable storage systems, this could be a way of addressing the problem,” he says.

Down the road, IBM’s process could lead researchers to storage technology’s Holy Grail — the ability to store one data bit on a single, tiny grain of magnetic material. “That would mean taking storage to its ultimate destination,” Munce says. “But much work remains before we can reach that goal.”