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Could helium in hard drives make performance go 'Up?'

It seems like a simple concept, but nobody has tried it before now.

Western Digital announced that it will be encasing a drive in helium as early as next year, which should boost performance and lower temperatures. A spokesperson for Hitachi, the Western Digital subsidiary that is making the new gear, told Computerworld that while they don’t know the specifics of what a helium drive would do, they expect to see performance gains.

Helium is a lot lighter than air. It’s why balloons filled with it rise to the ceiling. What Western Digital plans to do is hermetically seal the core of a hard drive in helium gas. This would, they estimate, reduce the drag and friction on the drive, enabling it to use 23 percent less power to operate. They expect that this design will allow them to increase the capacity of the drive by up to 40 percent without changing its size.

Western Digital seems to be using a lot of estimates at this point — the new drives aren’t expected out until at least next year — but doing the math based on those estimates shows that their standard, small 4 terabyte data center drives would be able to hold about 5.6 terabytes. So you get a big capacity increase and a cost decrease at the same time. spread across a large data center, that could add up.

Of course, if the drives are completely sealed, one wonders why they wouldn’t just use hydrogen, which is even lighter than helium. I suppose the possibility that a spark, however remote, could trigger a Hindenburg-like explosion on your desktop computer might keep most people from buying them. At least you could yell “Oh, the humanity!” as your data goes up in flames.

No, I guess helium is better. Instead of burning metal, we can imagine scenes from the cute Pixar movie Up!, only instead of floating the old man’s house with balloons, perhaps in the future we can pilot our strange craft with Hitachi hard drives.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 18, 2012 at 9:39 AM


Reader Comments

Mon, Mar 18, 2013 Lawrence

Only problem is any voice recordings on the drive would play back sounding like chipmunks...

Thu, Sep 20, 2012 DEFENDER OF THE FREE WORLD

Wow, people need to lighten up a little, the Hindenberg reference is a good analogy to the topic at hand and comical at the same time. I don't think he was focusing in on the people dying, just referencing that Hydrogen is not a good medium for obvious reasons. I have doubts that Helium or a vacumm would be good to encase in a drive because eventually it would leak and the difference in performance charectoristics would lead to data loss and eventual failure.

Thu, Sep 20, 2012

John, John, John. Some basic high school chemistry please. Helium is non-reactive while hydrogen can be very reactive. Drives are small enough that I would be less worried about the flammability of the drive than the chemical reactions with the drive surface.

As others have pointed out, a complete vacuum would produce even less drag so I think you've fundamentally misunderstood WD's proposal. Thanks for bringing it to our attention but a little more research before writing would be appreciated.

Thu, Sep 20, 2012

A few things seem strange about this approach...first, the statement that reducing friction and drag would allow it to have a greater data density. Power consumption or heat dissipation is not what limits hard drive density nowadays, it's merely the ability to reliably manipulate and detect the smaller bits of magnetized material...and we're approaching what has been declared even the theoretical limits there, so this wouldn't help that. Next, if the drive is sealed well enough to keep helium in/everything else out, then having it encased in nothing produces much less drag/friction than encasing it in helium.

Thu, Sep 20, 2012 WVFed Charleston, WV

I thought there was a worldwide shortage of helium, so where would the helium come from? However there is no shortage of "hot air" coming out of DC, so why not use that for something useful like shielding hard drives instead of obfuscating reality !

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