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Helium-filled hard drives promise capacity boost

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September 18, 2012

HGST's helium-filled sealed hard drives (not pictured) boast higher capacity and lower pow...

HGST's helium-filled sealed hard drives (not pictured) boast higher capacity and lower power consumption than their air-filled cousins

Unlike Iomega’s eGo Helium portable hard drive, a new hard disk drive platform developed by Western Digital (WD) subsidiary HGST actually does fill hard drives with helium. Rather than just making the drive a little bit lighter, replacing regular old air with helium and sealing it within the drive enclosure has allowed HGST to increase hard drive storage capacity by 40 percent while reducing power consumption by 23 percent.

The capacity and power consumption improvements are possible because the density of helium is one-seventh that of air, resulting in less drag on the head arms and the spinning disk stack. This means that less power is required to spin the disk stack and move and position the heads over the tracks. Additionally, the reduction in forces buffeting the disks and moving arm allows both the disks themselves and the data tracks to be placed closer together.

This provides in increase in data density of the individual disks, while also increasing the number of disks contained within a standard 3.5-inch enclosure from five to seven. And because the enclosures are hermetically sealed to keep the helium in, humidity, dust and other contaminants are kept out.

Helium also provides more efficient thermal conduction than air, meaning that the new drives run 4° C (7° F) cooler and therefore also quieter than traditional air-filled drives. HGST anticipates the reduced cooling and power requirements of the drives, coupled with their increased capacity, will make them attractive to the corporate and cloud datacenter markets, which it is targeting.

While the benefits of filling a HDD with helium have been known for some time, it was developing a cost-effective manufacturing process to store helium within a HDD enclosure that proved a challenge. Now, following more than six years of research, initial pilot manufacturing lines are operational.

The helium-filled sealed drive technology was recently demonstrated at a Western Digital Investor event in California. HGST plans to launch its helium-filled sealed drive platform next year, in capacities yet to be announced.

Source: HGST

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
17 Comments

I wonder if filling it with hydrogen an even lighter material would work better? I know Hydrogen is obviously more reactive then helium, I can' think it would significantly impact performance.

Michael Mantion
18th September, 2012 @ 11:10 pm PDT

If a container can be sealed to hold helium, then a seal for hydrogen can't be too far off - and rather than just using it for the HDD's, methinks it would be a step forward in making hydrogen powered vehicles more readily available.

joeblake
19th September, 2012 @ 01:41 am PDT

We don't have enough Helium to start filling hard drives with it also, use Nitrogen (like many motorcycle tyres), we have plenty, so we can leave the Helium for medical uses like NMR machines.

Jack Thompson
19th September, 2012 @ 01:48 am PDT

Hydrogen is normally a dipole molecule in our atmosphere (they pair together). So it's about 17% lighter than helium. Not much difference for something that would require a lot more safety in mass production. Although, on the same note, helium is also a finite resource, in much smaller quantity than hydrogen.

Ali Kim
19th September, 2012 @ 02:58 am PDT

why not use vacuum??

Panayis Zambellis
19th September, 2012 @ 04:45 am PDT

Two of the inconvenient things about hydrogen can leak through solid metal; which damages the strength of the metals. Which is something NASA and others finds immensely annoying. So you can put hydrogen into an HDD, but it won't stay there. So if your drive requires hydrogen to be there (and stay out of the electronics) to operate reliably, then it probably won't operate reliably very long.

John Routledge
19th September, 2012 @ 06:49 am PDT

Helium is expensive, in short supply, and getting more expensive by the day.

Can't they just pull a vacuum instead?

Paul Brush
19th September, 2012 @ 07:43 am PDT

Pulling a vacuum is what you do when you don't want to get rid of heat. It would create a thermal management problem.

Helium is mined with natural gas. It can also be manufactured in a Thorium Molten Salt Reactor.

If the price of Helium rises (pun intended), then it will be used only for important things, as opposed to party ballons.

see3d
19th September, 2012 @ 10:01 am PDT

Helium is depleting/ we are running out of Helium as a resource. Consequently, using Helium for this proposal is a bad idea.

Instead, Wester Digital should focus their efforts on enhancing SSD-technology.

Falk O Güthert
19th September, 2012 @ 10:01 am PDT

Methane would be a good substitute. It is extremely plentiful and lighter than air. The only worry would be an "ignition" lighting the gas. A fail safe could be designed to release the gas if it did ignite somehow.

RESISTANCE
19th September, 2012 @ 02:38 pm PDT

You guys suggesting vacuum really should learn how hard drives work. They need a thin film of gas rotating with the platters for the read/write heads to "fly" on.

As for the supply of helium, the open volume inside a hard drive is miniscule, measured in cubic centimeters.

Gadgeteer
19th September, 2012 @ 04:47 pm PDT

Methane wouldn't catch on fire inside a hard drive. Fill it with pure methane, no oxygen.

The most flammable materials won't burn without oxygen. (Leaving out hypergolic chemicals that either react together or with a non-consumable solid catalyst.)

No smoking warnings in hospitals around patients being given oxygen aren't there because of danger from the oxygen, the warnings are because of the bed coverings and other materials that will ignite easier and burn hotter/faster with the higher level of oxygen.

Ever see those episodes of "Brainiac" where they had six camp trailers (caravans in Brit english) connected to switches in the pockets of a billiard table? Each trailer was (supposedly) filled with a different gas. When a ball was hit into a pocket, the trailer connected went *boom*.

Welll, they had to include enough oxygen in each to make an explosive mixture. Otherwise they wouldn't have exploded or even caught fire. the biggest boom was from the trailer full of oxygen. There had to be some other gas included for fuel, at the specific ratio to make the thing explode so well, or they juiced it up a bit with some real explosives, like they did with one of the reactive metals in the bathtubs because one of them just sunk to the bottom and fizzed a lot.

Gregg Eshelman
19th September, 2012 @ 08:45 pm PDT

Producing Helium in Molten Salt Thorium Reactors is all well and good, but we don't have any of those...

Tony Smale
20th September, 2012 @ 01:25 pm PDT

Just a quick calculation :

a 1TB HDD is approx. 22mm x 102mm x 147mm

take 2mm off (wall thickness) for casing

assume 70% of internal volume must be filled with helium and that the process uses 5% excess helium.

Assume that they sell 100 million HDD units/year,

If my calculation is right, I end up with less than 25 m3 /year vs an estimated production of 180 million m3 in the world (1,3e-5 %).

I'm not sure the main environment threat is the helium consumption ...

ILP
21st September, 2012 @ 12:22 am PDT

I'm impressed! Now if they can up the speed to 12k rpm and keep the price within reason, I'll stand in line to buy one.

WagTheDog
22nd September, 2012 @ 03:06 am PDT

One drawback I can think of is that of data recovery. If a drive fails, the disks have to be put on another one, but will they work well enough without helium to transfer all the data? Or will the data recovery centers have to be able to inject helium into their recovery drives to make them work?

David Guerra
25th September, 2012 @ 12:46 pm PDT

ILP, I make it 21,750 cubic metres per year on the assumed figures. Still a small percentage of the total, though.

Gerry Lavell
19th November, 2012 @ 09:22 pm PST
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