Eventually, manufacturers will combine heat-assisted and patterned media to produce drives that will be capable of storing 50 to 100 terabits of data per square inch. That's 280 to 560 times more dense than the 178.8 gigabit-per-square-inch drive coming from Toshiba later this year.
Seagate Technologies, the world's largest drive maker, wants to first adopt a concept called "heat-assisted magnetic recording." This involves heating microscopic cells on the disk platters as part of the recording process. The heat-assisted camp wants to change the grains. Unlike cobalt-platinum grains, iron-platinum grains will not flip at room temperature. To record or erase data, a laser integrated into the drive would heat a particular bit. The data would get recorded or erased, and the bit would quickly cool. Material changes, however, are rarely easy; for example, the switch from aluminum to copper in semiconductors confounded semiconductor makers. For the heat-applied technology, engineers would have to perfect ways to pinpoint the heat from the laser.
Meanwhile, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, No. 2 in the industry, favors going forward first with something called "patterned media." In this technique, the cells that store data--which now sit next to each other in a continuous film--would be isolated from each other like dots. the patterned media group wants to keep the current grains. It proposes, instead, reducing the number of grains in each bit from 100 to one, and then isolating the bits from each other to reduce cross-talk and the risk of data corruption. Initially, the grains in the first patterned media drives would be larger than the grains in today's drives, but the overall size of the bit would be smaller.
Ultimately, the decision could turn on which technology looks easier to bring to mass manufacturing. This year, around 450 million to 460 million drives will leave factories, according to data from Disk/Trend.
"We can see 50 to 100 terabits being possible," Kryder said. "We are three orders of magnitude from any truly fundamental limits."