This Innovation Is No Lightweight

Innovation ain't dead, even in very mature industries.

Anders Bylund
Anders Bylund
Sep 14, 2012 at 12:00AM

Hard disk builders Seagate International (Nasdaq: STX) and Western Digital (NYSE: WDC) have to contend with a new breed of competition. Solid-state drives based on flash memory chips are faster and lighter than their magnetic-disc counterparts. If prices on flash chips ever drop far enough to become price-competitive with traditional drives, the old technology would quickly join the obsolete ranks of buggy whips, steam engines, and hardwired landline phones.

So how can the magnetic-disc giants fight back? One answer is to build larger and faster memory caches into their drives. The resulting "hybrid" drives combine the low cost of magnetic discs with the high speed of SSD devices.

But that's thinking inside the box. There must be another way to make the discs faster and lighter.

How about injecting them with helium?

That's no joke. Western Digital subsidiary Hitachi Global Storage Technologies will introduce helium-filled drives in 2013. Replacing the air inside your drive with lighter helium gas will reduce the final product's weight by nearly 30%. That balloon-like effect could be welcome news to designers of low-cost laptops and industrial-sized data centers -- two situations where every gram counts.

But that's just gravy. More importantly, the helium changes the aerodynamics of the drive. This is a big deal when platters are spinning at 10,000 RPM. To simulate the problems this can cause, attach a CD you don't like very much to your Dremel tool. Spin it up to about half the Dremel's top speed (accounting for the CD's large mass compared to cutting and grinding tools), and watch it shatter to smithereens in a matter of seconds.

So the helium-infused drives should use significantly less power, spin even faster, and eliminate some well-known mechanical problems that limit drive sizes today. Turbulence won't jostle the sensitive electronics around as much as today's air-filled versions do. Western Digital will market this solution mostly to the data center crowd, where 20% lower power draws and higher reliability are serious selling points.

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