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IBM tech pushes storage limits

IBM researchers have a new way to increase hard drive space by up to 100 percent. Desktops will now be able to store trillions of bytes of data

IBM researchers say they have developed a new technology that will open the way for magnetic memory devices with 10 to 100 times the capacity of today's hard drives. This means desktop computers capable of storing trillions of bytes of data are on the horizon, so don't junk that 10GB dinosaur just yet.

The new brand of iron-platinum magnetic film isn't quite ready for prime time, said Shouheng Sun of IBM's TJ Watson Research Center in New York. Scientists still have to figure out how to get the optimal thickness for the film, as well as the best way to read information recorded on dots just four billionths of a metre (four nanometres) wide.

According to the Friday issue of the journal Science, however, Sun and his colleagues say the process represents a new approach to magnetic recording, with 3D structures building themselves on a molecular scale from a chemical solution. "With self-assembly, we let nature do most of the work," Sun said.

The current technology for manufacturing hard drives involves sputtering material onto a surface, then setting up a pattern of individual magnetised areas. In contrast, the new process combines chemicals to create particles of iron and platinum surrounded by a coating of insulating organic molecules. When the film is spread out and baked, the iron-platinum crystals arrange themselves into a uniform grid, with each crystal capable of holding a stable magnetic charge. This is what's called a "nanocrystal superlattice".

Nanoparticles are packed much more densely than the magnetic grains used on today's hard drives, yet the magnetic charge of one crystal doesn't interfere with its neighbours. On the basis of the measurements made so far, Sun and his colleagues estimated that the material could hold its magnetic pattern for 10 years if need be. By tinkering with the chemistry of the process, the storage density could be "tuned" for various applications, he said.

The researchers said one square inch of nanoparticle material could theoretically record trillions of bits of data -- the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of books. The process could be applied to hard drives or any other type of magnetic media, said Sun. He added that there have already been discussions about developing nanoparticle media for use on Millipede, a project at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory that uses an atomic-force microscope to read data.

"The reported results may be thought of as a scientific research breakthrough," Sun said. However, he added, "in terms of real applications of these materials, we still have a lot to do."

IBM spokesman Mike Ross said it was impossible to predict the time frame for turning the science into retail products. Not only are there technical hurdles to overcome, but there's also the fact that traditional sputtered film technology is also developing at a rapid rate. Just this week, IBM announced the availability of a 75GB hard drive for desktop computers.

"Such a high volume business would not tend to make a change in process without a dramatic benefit," Ross said in an email exchange. "This material has that potential. But what actually happens cannot yet be predicted."

Other types of media -- such as optical drives and solid-state memory cards -- also hold promise for storing huge amounts of data, but Ross said the various technologies involve trade-offs in manufacturing costs or access speeds.

The nanoparticle research, he said, "definitely shows there is a lot of life left in magnetic storage."

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