IBM's 'Pixie Dust' Promises to Quadruple Disk Space

IBM announced last week that it has begun mass-producing a magnetic coating technology that will eventually allow a quadrupling of the amount of data that can be stored on a single hard disk.

The new technology will eventually permit hard disk drives to store 100G bits of data per square inch of disk area, according to IBM. With it, desktop computers by 2003 will be able to have 400GB hard drives, and handheld devices will be able to store as much as 6GB of video data, or the equivalent of eight movies.

IBM said the technology, called antiferromagnetically coupled (AFC) media, sandwiches a three-atom-thick layer of ruthenium, a precious metal similar to platinum, between two magnetic layers on a disk. Scientists at IBM have dubbed the metal "pixie dust" because of its atomic size.

Bob Scranton, director of recording-head technology at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, said AFC media breaches a wall that the industry once believed was unpenetrable because of the "superparamagnetic effect," or high-density data decay, which was thought to occur when densities reached 20G to 40G bits per square inch.

"What scientists have known for some time is that as you decrease the volume of magnetic grains you're writing on, at some point you'd get to where the volume of grain is so small, it can't hold magnetization over the product's life span," Scranton said.

Because of that limitation, other storage technologies, such as optical disks, appeared to be more promising than magnetic disks, which are the current industry standard.

"If this is truly a quadruple leap forward, it could only solidify [the] disk's place in a storage environment," said John Madden, an analyst at Summit Strategies Inc. in Boston.

Initially, IBM is using the AFC media in its Travelstar notebook hard disk drive products. Currently, it allows data densities of up to 25.7G bits per square inch.

The AFC media is the first product of its type to be mass-produced, said Madden.

Not only do the new disks promise to decrease the footprint of data storage systems, but by increasing data density, disks will be made lighter and consume less energy, according to IBM.

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