Helium Gas Allows HGST to Give Major Boost to Hard Drive Storage

PHOTO: The Ultrastar He6 uses helium gas to fit more storage in the same space.
The Ultrastar He6 uses helium gas to fit more storage in the same space.

Helium is useful for more than party balloons and funny voices. It's used to cool down nuclear reactors and MRI machine magnets, as well as keeping liquid rocket fuel pressurized to ensure safe space flights.

Now HGST, a subsidiary of Western Digital Corp., is putting the gas to new use by pumping it into the Ultrastar He6, resulting in an improved hard drive capable of storing six terabytes worth of information.

  • HGST's Ultrastar He6 hard drive replaces air with helium
  • The new hard drive has 50 percent more storage space than similar sized hard drives
  • HGST is targeting businesses and says that everyday consumers may not see benefits immediately, if at all

A hard drive works by the read-write head whizzing back and forth over several discs spinning at 7200 rpm (rotations per minute), according to Marshall Brain, founder of the website How Stuff Works. "It can either change the magnetic pattern on the surface of the platter to write information, or detect the pattern that is there to read information," he told ABC News. "But there is a tiny air gap between the read-write head and the surface of the disk."

That air gap causes problems in the hard drive itself. Brendan Collins, the vice president of product marketing at HGST, said that the disks experience heavy wind resistance and turbulence as they spin at thousands of revolutions per minute. "It's like when you drive 100 miles per hour and stick your arm out the window," he said. "Your arm is going to flutter."

"This new development puts helium inside the disk drive instead of air," said Brain. "There is less turbulence as the read-write heads fly over the disks, so the disks can be closer together on the spindle." As a result, the Ultrastar He6 has 50 percent more storage space than other similar-sized hard drives.

It's like when you drive 100 miles per hour and stick your arm out the window.

HGST has found some big organizations interested in putting the new hard drive's advantages to work, including computer manufacturer HP and research organization CERN. Even Netflix is looking into see how the new hard drives would work. But Collins said the direct benefits to customers won't be seen right away, if at all.

"A typical notebook drive is one disk spinning at 5400 rpm, so there's not a lot of turbulence," he said.

In addition, the new hard drive is not likely to be something people can buy off the shelf. The Ultrastar He6 is an enterprise hard drive, so Collins did not specify on how much each hard drive would cost. "It's value-based pricing as opposed to just capacity-based pricing," he said.