Intelligent Machines

Magnetic Future

Isolating bits on a disk drive could shatter storage limits.

Every few years experts proclaim the imminent end of advances in magnetic media, the technology behind most computer data storage. But engineers keep finding new tricks to cram more data onto hard drives, such as making the magnetic grains that store bits smaller. Now even these tactics are hitting a physical limit-but that doesn’t spell the end of magnetic media.

To keep increasing the data density of hard drives, researchers in a consortium that includes IBM and General Electric are working on a scheme called “patterned media,” which could boost storage capacity by physically isolating a disk’s magnetic grains from one another on nanoscale “islands.” In today’s technology, several hundred magnetic grains are needed to store a bit clearly, and if the grains become too small and densely packed, they lose their magnetic orientation. On an island, a bit might be stored stably with just one grain, allowing bits to be spaced more closely. A prototype device should be ready by 2004.

IBM has proved the concept by carving islands in magnetic alloys with a focused ion beam. And GE is developing a mass-manufacturing method, creating a polymer that can be stamped with a grid of pillars-each about 50 nanometers square and five nanometers high-and coated with a thin film of magnetic alloy. In their initial incarnation, patterned media could yield disks that hold between 30 and 40 gigabits per square centimeter, ten times the density of today’s products, says Brad Reitz, GE’s manager for the project. Eventually, says Bruce Terris, Reitz’s counterpart at IBM, the technology might be pushed to more than 150 gigabits per square centimeter. At today’s sizes, a laptop hard drive with that density could hold over a terabyte of data, and a device like Apple Computer’s iPod music player could hold more than 57,000 songs-almost 30 times its current capacity.

This story is part of our July/August 2002 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Other university and corporate labs are also pursuing patterned magnetic- media technology. But observers say these researchers shouldn’t count their terabytes until they’ve been tested. “Patterned media is very difficult to do,” says Dave Reinsel, a storage industry analyst for Framingham, MA-based IDC. “It’s a fundamental change to the way we do storage.” Nevertheless, Reinsel thinks patterned- media technology may make it out of the lab and onto the market by around 2008. If it does, magnetic storage may have an attractive future after all.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.