‘Racetrack’ wires gain on hard-disk storage

A German scientist is claiming a major breakthrough in research that could eventually lead to wires replacing spinning hard disks for storing data.

'Racetrack' wires gain on hard-disk storage

IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, first came up with the idea of what it called ‘racetrack’ storage in 2004. As opposed to hard disk drives (HDD), where the disk or disks move to enable a head to read data in a fixed location on the disk, ‘racetrack’ moves the data itself using a pulse of electric current along a fixed wire.

IBM’s research stalled because it could not get the data to move quickly enough. But Guido Meier from the University of Hamburg realised that the reason for this was that the pulses were too long. By shortening the pulses they got the data to move more quickly, attaining speeds that are a match for a HDD.

‘Our results showed the movement of domains cannot be predicted with certainty as they get stuck on imperfections in the crystal,’ Meier explained. ‘We believe this is why previous attempts were relatively slow as they used longer electric current pulses – up to microseconds long – increasing their chances of getting stuck.’

The technology works by storing data on the wire in domains that are magnetically aligned so that they represent either a 1 or 0. When a current is passed through the wire the domains move along it, past a fixed read ‘head’.

The result is a storage medium that is more robust than HDDs, since it has no moving parts, and potentially much cheaper than other alternatives, such as flash memory.

However it is a long journey from Meier’s laboratory to the commercial PC. For wire to replace HDD it will need to be looped, so that the data can repeatedly pass the read head. Stuart Parkin at IBM’s Almaden Research Center is working on a method for integrating the technology with silicon chips by inserting the ends of U-shaped wires into the chip to create the loop. The loop’s similarity to the U-shape hippodrome gave the technology its ‘racetrack’ nickname.

In the meantime Meier is looking at how different materials and the shape of the wire can affect the way it behaves – crucially, whether it is possible to eliminate or at worst manage imperfections in the structure of the wire that can impede progress of domains.

Meier’s research is published in the American Physical Society’s Physical Review Letters.

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