Hard Drive Breakthrough Could See 10X Increase in Capacity

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 now ubiquitous on smartphones and 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.  

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 a 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. 

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. 

The researchers report 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 can withstand Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording conditions is a very important result," said Dr Anna Ott from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, a co-author of the study. 

"Considering that in 2020, around 1 billion terabytes of fresh HDD storage was produced, these results show a route for mass application of graphene in cutting-edge technologies," said professor Andrea Ferrari, director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre.

Subscribe to Technology This Week