Graphene could allow hard drives to hold 10 times more data

The material could also make HDDs more reliable.

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Igor Bonifacic
June 7, 2021 11:49 PM
This photo taken on January 19, 2017 shows an employee displaying a physically destroyed hard disk drive at the Tokyo Eco Recycle company in Tokyo.
Electronic waste is rising sharply across Asia as higher incomes allow hundreds of millions of people to buy smartphones and other gadgets, with serious consequences for human health and the environment, according to a UN study released on January 15.
 / AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA        (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

Solid-state drives may be the go-to for phones and most PCs and laptops, but the humble mechanical hard drive still has a place in the computing world. When you need a lot of storage for the least amount of money, they're the way to go. And that could be the case for the foreseeable future due to a breakthrough from Cambridge University.

Using graphene, everyone's favorite wonder material, they replaced the carbon-based overcoat (COC) on several hard drives. A COC protects the platter, the part of the drive that holds your data, from wear caused by its head and other factors. To build higher-density drives, manufacturers have decreased the space between the two components. Since the 1990s, the COC layer on most HDDs has slimmed down to 3nm, leading to a current storage density of about 1TB per square inch.

The research team pushed beyond that limit by taking advantage of graphene's heat resistance. That aspect of the material allowed the team to leverage a separate emerging technology called Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR). It enables a platter to hold even more data when it's heated. That's not something you can do with a traditional COC. 

Together, the technologies may lead to HDDs with a storage density between four and 10 terabytes per square inch. But beyond allowing for drives with significantly more capacity, graphene HDDs promise to be more resilient as well. The researchers found a single layer of the material reduced corrosion by 2.5 times. It also reduced friction and wear better than other current state-of-the-art solutions. When it comes to hard drives, reliability is just as important as storage capacity and what is likely to get cloud operators like Google interested in the technology.

But then there's the catch that comes with every graphene-related breakthrough we've since the material's discovery in 2004. It could allow us to do many things, including filter water more efficiently and selectively kill off cancer cells, but so far, most of those applications have yet to make it out of the lab and into the real world.

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