Helium-filled hard drives promise capacity boost
By Darren Quick
September 18, 2012
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.