Nobel Prize in Magnetic Storage!

Well, not really, but today’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, were each honored for their independent discoveries of Giant Magnetoresistance, or GMR in 1988. The stunning growth in storage density in magnetic media was enabled in large part by the introduction of hard drives heads that employed GMR, and most hard drives on the market today are GMR-based. For many years, the growth in magnetic data storage density matched the growth in transistors-on-a-chip density (aka Moore’s Law), roughly a 36% compound annual growth rate.

But then in the mid-1990’s magnetic storage density growth rates accelerated to a whopping 80%-100% annual growth rate, trouncing the semiconductor industry’s achievements. Much of this is a result of disk drive manufacturers commercializing read/write technology that took advantage of the GMR effect, with the first GMR-based read head introduced into the market around 1997. In many ways, the quantum mechanical effect of GMR observed in the thin-film structures of alternating ferromagnetic and non-magnetic metal layers, only a nanometer or two thick, represent an early real-world application of nanotechnology, well before the term had even been popularized.

Thanks in part to the pioneering work of these two men, the exponential growth rates we’ve all come to expect from computing hardware continue unabated. Let’s put this in concrete terms: I bought the first 5GB iPod when it was introduced to the market in October 2001. Less than six years later in September 2007, Apple introduced the 160GB iPod Classic, a 32x capacity increase over the original, a doubling in density every 14 months. Take that Gordon!

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