Transforming the future of computer storage and electricity grids

The hard drive was supposed to give way to other technologies years ago. Talk about a premature obituary! These things just keep getting bigger, faster and cheaper. You ain't seen nothing yet.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor


Mark_Twain_AF_Bradley Wiki.png
Like Mark Twain's death, reports of the hard drive's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
 Back in the 1990s, physicists were predicting the end of hard drives for computer storage. You could only cram so much data onto a spinning electromagnetic disk before the thing would go kaflooey, the experts said. Hard drives had advanced to capacities of 2 gigabytes and would expand beyond that, but they had only about 5-to-10 years before hitting their absolute physical limit - before the bits of "zeroes" and "ones" that form the DNA of all digital information would flip erratically. Another technology would soon have to lead the march for more.

Well, it's nearly 20 years later, and about the only thing to have gone haywire has been the prediction. Last I looked, today's home PCs weigh in at 3 terabytes, which is 1,500 times more than those doomed boxes of the past. 

Clever advances in materials, electromagnetism, aerodynamics (a head literally flies over a disk to read it, thus the term "crash"), intelligence and in other areas have ensured the hard drive's longevity and enabled it to advance at a pace that might even be the envy of the revered Moore's Law - the principle that states that semiconductor chip power doubles every two years.

And you ain't seen nothing yet.

According to a story by the BBC, scientists at the University of California San Diego have discovered "a highly sensitive magnetic material that could transform computer hard drives." By combining layers of nickel and vanadium oxide, UCSD's professor Ivan Schuller thinks engineers can create a drive that changes magnetic states far easier than today's do. Hard drives work by reliably assigning opposite magnetic states to "zeroes" and "ones." As the BBC reported: 

"We can control the magnetism in just a narrow range of temperature - without applying a magnetic field. And in principle we could also control it with voltage or current," said Prof Schuller ... "A problem with magnetic memory is reversibility - you want it to be reversible but also stable. Today's best systems are heat-assisted, but they use lasers, which involves a lot of heat. But with this new material, you barely need to heat it by 20 degrees (Kelvin) to get a five-fold change in coercivity (magnetic resistance)."

Schuller presented his findings at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver. He said the technology also augurs huge advances in electricity grids, although the BBC story was light on details, noting simply that, "Prof Schuller envisions a new type of transformer which can cope with sudden surges in current - such as during a lightning strike or a power surge."

The professor was adamant that his team is onto something.  "No other material known to man can do this," he said in reference to the material's magnetic ease. "It's a huge effect. And we can engineer it."

Computer storage engineers, for one, are probably taking note. More exotic storage technologies might still one day emerge, such as holographic devices the size of a sugar cube, or atomic storage that uses atoms for bits, which IBM, HP and others are developing.

But like Mark Twain's "death" in 1897, reports of the hard drive's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The technology has come a long way since IBM shipped the first one - it was the size of a refrigerator - on the back of flatbed truck in 1956 with just of sip of today's capacity at a mere 5 megabytes (yes, megabytes with an "m," so today's storehouses have roughly a million times more room using a fraction of the volume).

Meanwhile, even before Schuller's material reaches the market, hard drives should continue to defy the "superpamagnetic limit" that was to have sealed their fate. Those of you who revere the technology gods should genuflect to your three terabytes next time you walk past them. And pray for some nickel and vanadium oxide.

Photo is from A.F. Bradley New York via Wikimedia

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