Helium-filled hard drives increase density, lower power


— 10:54 AM on September 13, 2012

To quote UK rapper Scroobius Pip, "helium is the second-lightest gas that there is, so we use it in balloons we give to little kids." Now, the Hitachi storage division acquired by Western Digital is using helium in hard drives. The folks at Hitachi have been working on sealing helium inside drives for six years, and the technology is finally ready for prime time. A drive is being demoed today at a WD investor's event, and actual products are expected to begin qualification next year.

Helium has one seventh the density of the air typically found inside hard drives. That's not enough of a difference to allow helium-filled notebook drives to lighten the load for notebooks. However, the gas offers much less resistance to spinning platters, which means less work for the drive motor. Helium-filled drives are claimed to consume 23% less power than conventional designs.

According to the press release, helium also reduces the fluid-flow forces between the platters and drive arms, allowing them to be placed even closer together. Hitachi's current offerings stack up to five plattters in a single enclosure, but helium-filled models should accommodate as many as seven platters in the same space. More platters means more gigabytes, which is part of the reason the technology is being targeted at storage-hungry corporate datacenters.

With superior thermal transfer properties to air, helium should allow drives to run cooler than traditional models. Lower shear forces purportedly reduce noise levels, but there's no word on whether the gas makes seek noise sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. It will be interesting to see if helium makes its way into consumer-grade HDDs. WD certainly has a lot of those, and its external storage products seem particularly ripe for higher-density drives with low power consumption and quieter acoustics.

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