Comment »Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 2:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Today may be the Grand National, but I’m more interested in a different type of racetrack. New research in to a new type of computer memory means hard drive failure could be a thing of the past.

Physicists at the University of Leeds, in conjunction with IBM Research’s Zurich Lab, have been working on developing “racetrack” memory which could replace current hard drives. Good news for anyone who has ever lost crucial data thanks to a dead drive.

Existing storage technology works like a tiny record player. Information is stored on metal discs made up of groups of magnetised atoms called domains. These discs spin beneath a “head” to read off your mp3 files, documents, and emails.

Racetrack memory was conceived last year by Stuart Parkin at IBM Research’s Almaden Lab, and uses no moving parts, meaning disks using the technology would be much less likely to break. Instead, the information is moved about by an electric current, which switches the magnetic direction of the domains.

The new research, published in Physical Review Letters, uses an electron microscope that can “see” magnetism to investigate how these tiny magnetic devices behave. The aim is to reduce the electric current required to move information along the racetrack.

As well as being more reliable, racetrack memory could also be much cheaper and faster. The price of iPods and USB memory sticks could fall, with the cost of racetrack memory 100 times cheaper per bit than flash memory. With no moving parts and no time needed to search the disk for information, computers could potentially boot up in an instant.

All this wonderful stuff is still a long way off, however. The next stage in the quest for improved memory is to develop better materials with which to construct the racetrack. It’s expected that the new memory will be available within 10 years.

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