Graphene could allow hard drives to store ten times as much data

It enables a two-fold reduction in friction and provides better corrosion and wear than state-of-the-art solutions

Photo: fStop Images

Solid-state drives may be the go-to for phones and most PCs and laptops, but the humble mechanical hard drive still has a place in the computing world - especially when you need a lot of storage, but you don't have the money. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that in recent time hard drive manufacturers have turned to increasingly esoteric methods of improving performance and capacities.

As a result, helium-filled hard drives are now common in data centers and enterprise markets. Using helium inside these drives reduced their operating temperatures and allowed manufacturers to fit more platters into the same physical space, partly by reducing the space between each platter. More recently, drive manufacturers have also adopted support for technologies like HAMR (Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording) and MAMR (Microwave Assisted Magnetic Recording).

This week, however, researchers at the Cambridge Graphene Center have achieved even cooler breakthrough in the field, developing a new ultra-high density hard drive (HDD) that they say has ten times the data storage of other leading drives. And this is all thanks to an ultra-thin coating of graphene - everyone's favorite wonder material.

The scientists came to the conclusion after replacing the carbon-based overcoat (COC) on several drive platters with one to four layers of graphene and trying Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR). A COC protects the platter, the part of the drive that holds your data, from wear caused by its head and other factors. To build higher-density drives, manufacturers have decreased the space between the two components.

Since the 1990s, the COC layer on most HDDs has slimmed down to 3nm, leading to a current storage density of about 1TB per square inch. However, friction, wear, corrosion, and thermal stability are critical concerns below 2 nm, limiting current technology and restricting COC integration with the aforementioned HAMR technology.

Existing COCs also don’t perform at these high temperatures, yet graphene does. It is also incredibly thin and protects against corrosion, which are ideal qualities given the operating environment inside a hard drive. In particular, the study, which was was carried out in collaboration with teams at the University of Exeter, India, Switzerland, Singapore, and the US, found out that the graphene layers reduced corrosion by 2.5x and boosted drive areal densities by a factor of 10, to more than 10TB/s of capacity.

“This work showcases the excellent mechanical, corrosion, and wear resistance properties of graphene for ultra-high storage density magnetic media. Considering that in 2020, around 1 billion terabytes of fresh HDD storage was produced, these results indicate a route for mass application of graphene in cutting-edge technologies,” Professor Andrea C. Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, said.

This could potentially lead to HDDs with a storage density between four and 10 terabytes per square inch. But then there's the catch that comes with every graphene-related breakthrough we've since the material's discovery in 2004.

Graphene, which is a material made of a one-atom-thick layer of carbon, is a bit of a buzzy darling in the material sciences community, to the point that it’s nearly a meme to implement it in just about anything, whether it’s computers, batteries, or medicine, that needs a high-tech update. Still, so far, most of those applications have yet to make it out of the lab and into the real world.

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