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Harnessing heat for greener platter-based hard drives

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March 1, 2010

A schematic of data storage in (left) converntional magnetic memory and (right) thermally ...

A schematic of data storage in (left) converntional magnetic memory and (right) thermally assisted memory (Image: Alan Stonebraker, APS)

Solid state drives (SSDs) should - theoretically - offer energy savings compared to the conventional platter-based variety. They have no moving parts and don’t require the battery draining spinning of platters that leads to excessive heat generation. But researchers have found that random thermal fluctuations in magnetic memory can be harnessed to reduce the energy required to store information on these drives, offering the prospect of magnetic-based computer memory that operates at significantly lower power than platter-based HDDs.

Heat is usually a problem when it comes to storing digital data. At the microscopic level, the molecules and atoms of anything at a temperature above absolute zero are in constant motion. Because magnetic memory relies on controlling and measuring the orientation of tiny magnetic particles, the jostling that comes about as components warm up can potentially scramble data. Thermal issues are a major concern as researchers build increasingly dense and fast magnetic memory.

But heat isn't entirely bad, according to a collaboration of Italian and American physicists random thermal motions can be helpful for writing magnetic data. Essentially, the researchers found that applying an electrical current that should be too modest to record data can still be effective for writing information because thermal motion gives an added boost to help orient magnetic particles.

The researchers confirmed the effect by measuring magnetic fluctuations as the particles that make up memory were being aligned. Thermal motions are random, which in turn causes random variations in the amount of time it takes for magnetic particles to line up. The fact that alignment times ranged from one to a hundred billionths of a second made it clear that random, temperature-dependent motion must be at work in helping to flip the particles.

The experimental confirmation of the thermal effects on magnetic memory points the way to new, thermally-assisted data writing schemes. The advances could reduce the power required to store information using magnetic-based drives, which are still considerably cheaper than their solid state counterparts, potentially helping to ensure that future PCs are increasingly green machines.

Results of the researcher’s experiments appears in the journal APS Physics.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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