Hard drives of the future

Research Chair to develop new materials enabling advanced data storage.

Professor Robert Bowman of Queen's University Belfast has been appointed as a new Research Chair in Advanced Materials for Data Storage, starting a five-year project to research and develop new materials for use in the next generation of hard drives.


The Chair will enable Professor Bowman, currently Head of School of Mathematics and Physics at QUB, to build on an 11-year collaboration with Seagate Technology – a global leader in data storage – which is co-sponsoring the position with the Royal Academy of Engineering.


The magnetic process of reading and writing data to hard disks is a well-established technology, but manufacturers are reaching a limit to how much information can readily be stored on disks. To increase the density of information, new solutions are being explored, including heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR), which involves integrating laser heating technology into the read/write head of a hard disk. However, current designs for the key element of HAMR – the plasmonic antennae – lack the thermal robustness to stay reliable for the lifetime of a hard drive.


Professor Bowman will use the opportunity of the Research Chair to explore new materials for use in HAMR antennae, looking beyond the current ‘toolbox’ of silver and gold alloys to identify substances that can perform under high-temperature conditions for prolonged periods of time. By developing novel materials with the correct balance of chemical, mechanical and optical properties, the research will enable HAMR technology – where promising advances have already been made – to be integrated with the mature technology already used in hard drives.


Commenting on the award, Professor Bowman said:


“The way people interact with technology has changed rapidly in the last decade, and now the growth of cloud computing means we’re looking at an ever-growing demand for data storage – an increase of more than 20% each year - driven by mobile devices. The technology underpinning the writing of data in today’s hard-disk drives cannot meet that demand. New materials and engineering solutions are required.


“I’m really grateful to the Royal Academy of Engineering for supporting this Chair, and working with Seagate allows really useful engagement with the real manufacturing processes that impose constraints on development of new technology. As we look to synthesise new materials, we’ll also look at how the processes may scale up for industrial use.”


Dr Mark Re, Seagate’s Chief Technical Officer, also praised the initiative, saying:

“We are delighted with the partnership between the Royal Academy of Engineering, Queens University Belfast and Seagate to establish this Research Chair, as it further strengthens our technical foundation and bandwidth in the UK. This project is recognition of the long partnership Seagate has developed with Queen’s. In particular, Professor Bowman and the Academy will assist in the next stage of growing research capacity to support Seagate and advanced materials research. Our vision of the hard disc drive roadmap is Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR), which will be the next significant technology transition in the industry. This partnership is a great opportunity to increase awareness for our technical needs to the photonics community in UK, and beyond, and will support our recruitment of skilled photonic R&D and engineering staff.”


Professor Sir James McDonald FREng FRSE, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Committee, says:


“Professor Bowman’s research will impact an industry that, without a doubt, benefits all of our lives on a daily basis. The outcomes of the proposed work should identify engineering solutions to system design and performance constraints and unlock greater storage potential. The Royal Academy of Engineering is proud to support this Research Chair to develop the technology for the next generation of hard drives, upon which our increasingly digital society depends.”


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