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Hard-drive capacity has doubled every year recently, a spectacular pace that has let us stuff our computers with text, music and images. But experts predict that without new manufacturing methods, drive capacity will max out in two to three years at around 100 gigabytes. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intevac, a maker of drive manufacturing systems, is trying to break through that barrier.

Today’s systems lay the magnetic grains that make up a hard drive parallel to the disk surface. Orienting the grains perpendicularly instead lets bits be packed perhaps 10 times more closely. But manufacturing difficulties have stymied development of this 20-year-old idea. A machine for producing these perpendicular media must deposit 40 to 80 alternating layers of magnetic material, each only a few tenths of a nanometer thick. Intevac is working to develop just such a system. If the project succeeds, says Terry Bluck, Intevac’s vice president of equipment engineering, 500-gigabyte drives could be on the market in five years for $100 to $200-the price of a 20-gigabyte drive today.

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