This hard drive breakthrough could see HDDs holding 10 times more data

Researchers expect a boost from 1 terabyte per square inch to up to 10 terabytes per square inch thanks to a protective graphene layer on hard disk drives.

From faster-charging batteries and tinier chips, graphene is sometimes called the 'wonder material'. And now researchers are looking at using it to revamp hard disk drives (HDDs). 

HDDs are cheaper than faster, more compact solid state drives (SSDs), which have the advantage of no moving parts, and are which now ubiquitous on smartphones, and used in many of the latest laptops. 

But researchers at the University of Cambridge Graphene Centre hope to breathe new life into the old HDD by using graphene to create ultra-high density HDDs.

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In a new paper published in Nature, the Cambridge researchers detail how they've used graphene to make HDDs that can store 10 times more data than today's HDDs. 

Their application of graphene focuses on replacing the currently used carbon-based overcoat (COC) layers that are used to protect an HDD's spinning platters when data is being rapidly written to them from the HDD's read/write heads. To achieve higher HDD densities, manufacturers have decreased the space between the head and platter. 

As the researchers note, the COC thickness has shrunk from 12.5nm in the 1990s to about 3nm today, allowing for a current storage density of about one terabyte (1 TB) per square inch. 

The researchers have shown they can use graphene's thin – one atom thick – strong and slippery properties to boost HDD density by 10 times. 

The researchers expect that graphene overcoats, which enable a protective layer below 2nm, may enable the development of 4-to-10 TB per square inch areal density HDDs, if manufacturers employ recording technologies like heat-assisted magnetic recording technology (HAMR) and HAMR+bit patterned media, they say in the paper.  

Graphene, a single layer of graphite, was only discovered by Professor Andre Geim and Dr Kostya Novoselov in 2004 at the University of Manchester. The pair won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work on graphene, so it's still early days for the wonder material. 

The Cambridge researchers replaced commercial COCs with one to four layers of graphene. Then they tested friction, wear, corrosion, thermal stability, and lubricant compatibility. 

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Cambridge reports that graphene enables a two-fold reduction in friction and provides better corrosion and wear resistance than state-of-the-art COCs. A single graphene layer reduces corrosion by 2.5 times, they said.

"Demonstrating that graphene can serve as protective coating for conventional hard disk drives and that it is able to withstand HAMR conditions is a very important result," said Dr Anna Ott from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, one of the co-authors of the study. 

"This will further push the development of novel high areal density hard disk drives."

"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," said professor Andrea Ferrari, director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre.