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Hard-Drive Advance Wins the Nobel Prize

Findings transformed storage and could pave the way for new devices.

This year’s Nobel Prize in physics has been given to a pair of researchers who discovered a magnetic property that opened the way for today’s fast and compact hard drives, making possible everything from iPods to the massive data centers that serve as the backbone of the Internet. The discovery has helped improve data storage density by at least an order of magnitude. And it is paving the way for several experimental technologies that could increase it even more.

Prized Bits: This hard drive from IBM, like most hard drives today, makes use of an effect discovered by this year’s winners of the Novel Prize for physics.

Albert Fert, scientific director at Unité Mixte de Physique CNRS-Thales in France, and Peter Grünberg, recently retired as a research scientist at the Research Centre Jülich in Germany, independently discovered the property, which Fert called giant magnetoresistance (GMR), in 1988. GMR makes it possible to pack far more information onto a hard disk by significantly increasing the sensitivity of detectors used to read bits of information. Within 10 years of its discovery, hard drives based on the effect were commercialized by IBM.

Before GMR was discovered, hard drives depended on a phenomenon called magnetoresistance, which had been understood for well over 100 years. In magnetoresistance, a magnetic field alters the electrical resistance in a material, causing measurable changes in electrical current. In hard drives, this property was used to detect bits of information–regions on a disk that have magnetized in one of two directions. As the head passes over such a region, its magnetic field changes a current flowing in the head, registering a 1 or a 0. But the technology ran into problems as the density of memory increased and researchers developed ways to write ever smaller bits. “Conventional sensors were finding it harder and harder to detect the magnetic bits stored on a hard drive,” says David Awschalom, a professor of physics at the University of California Santa Barbara. “The industry was facing this brick wall. How do you put more information on a disk and still read it?”

Fert’s and Grünberg’s discovery led to new sensors that show a giant change in electronic resistance when they encounter a magnetic field. This larger change made it possible to detect smaller bits, making it practical to cram far more of them onto a disk. “It’s the reason that a number of years ago all of us saw a very strong increase in the storage density in our hard drives,” Awschalom says. “It’s hit the consumer in a very big way.”

The giant-magnetoresistance effect depends on a quantum-mechanical property of electrons called spin, which has to do with the magnetic properties of a material. An electronic current includes electrons with two types of spin, designated “up” or “down.” Similarly, magnetic materials can be magnetized in different directions, which can also be called up and down. The ease with which an electron can move through a magnetic material depends on its spin. If an electron’s spin is up, it will move freely through an up-oriented magnet but will encounter resistance in a down magnet. The down-spin electron will behave just the opposite way.

Fert and Grünberg exploited this behavior by combining two layers of material, one magnetized up and one down. They then applied a magnetic field that magnetized both in the same direction and observed the effect this had on current running through the layers. They found that when both layers are oriented in the same direction, at least one type of electron can pass freely. But when they are oriented in opposite directions, both types of electrons encounter resistance, causing a large drop in current. Because the effect is large, the magnetic field from even a tiny bit creates a discernible signal, making it possible to detect smaller bits.

The discovery soon had the attention of researchers around the world because of its potential for improving hard drives. Stuart Parkin, a scientist at IBM Research, discovered that the effect could be achieved using much faster, cheaper methods than those used by Fert and Grünberg. Meanwhile, several other technologies had to be developed to take advantage of giant magnetoresistance, including techniques for writing smaller bits and for moving the read/write heads more precisely. A key discovery by researchers at IBM was a new configuration of magnetic layers that made it possible for the effect to be produced with small magnetic fields and used in the tiny read/write heads of hard drives.

The first disk drive based on GMR, a 16-gigabyte hard drive made by IBM, appeared in 1997. Over the next 10 years, the technology led to 1,000-gigabyte (one-terabyte) hard drives, says John Best, now the chief technologist at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies in San Jose, CA. He led the group at IBM that developed the first read/write head technology based on GMR. (The most recent of these hard drives make use of a related effect called tunneling magnetoresistance; like GMR, it makes use of magnetic layers oriented in opposite directions, but it is even more sensitive.)

The GMR effect could be the key to several more generations of memory devices, Best says. As researchers develop novel ways of packing more bits onto a hard drive, leading to disks potentially 50 times as dense as those available today, GMR-related technology will continue to be used to detect these bits, he says. The property is also crucial for new types of devices, including magnetic random access memory (MRAM), which is nonvolatile like flash memory, but faster and more reliable. Another experimental technology called racetrack memory, which is now being developed by Parkin, uses a novel type of memory bit, but one that could still be read using a GMR-based device, he says. Racetrack memory could eventually combine the best features of hard drives, flash drives, and conventional random access memory, serving as a universal memory device. (See “A Better Memory Chip” and “IBM Attempts to Reinvent Memory.”)

Indeed, in awarding the prize, the Nobel committee pointed to the wide-ranging importance of GMR in opening up the new science of spintronics, in which both the charge and spin of electrons is manipulated. The discovery, which the committee describes as one of the first payoffs of nanotechnology, has in turn now become “a driving force for new applications of nanotechnology.”

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