Hard Drives Application



HDDs record data by magnetizing ferromagnetic material directionally, to represent either a 0 or a 1 binary digit. They read the data back by detecting the magnetization of the material. A typical HDD design consists of a spindle which holds one or more flat circular disks called platters, onto which the data are recorded. The platters are made from a non-magnetic material, usually aluminum alloy or glass, and are coated with a thin layer of magnetic material. Older disks used iron(III) oxide as the magnetic material, but current disks use a cobalt-based alloy.


A cross section of the magnetic surface in action. In this case the binary data is encoded using frequency modulation. The platters are spun at very high speeds. Information is written to a platter as it rotates past devices called read-and-write heads that operate very close (tens of nanometers in new drives) over the magnetic surface. The read-and-write head is used to detect and modify the magnetization of the material immediately under it. There is one head for each magnetic platter surface on the spindle, mounted on a common arm. An actuator arm (or access arm) moves the heads on an arc (roughly radially) across the platters as they spin, allowing each head to access almost the entire surface of the platter as it spins. The arm is moved using a voice coil actuator or in some older designs a stepper motor.


The magnetic recording media are CoCrPt-based magnetic thin films of about 10-20 nm in thickness. The thin films are normally deposited on glass/ceramic/metal substrate and covered by thin carbon layer for protection. The Co-based alloy thin films are polycrystalline and the size of grains has an order of 10 nm. Because the sizes of each grain are tiny, they are typical single domain magnets. The media are magnetically hard (coercivity is about 0.3T) so that a stable remnant magnetization can be achieved. The grain boundaries turn out to be very important. The reason is that, the grains are very small and close to each other, so the coupling between each grains are very strong. When one grain is magnetized, the adjacent grains tend to be aligned parallel to it or demagnetized. Then both the stability of the data and signal-to-noise ratio will be sabotaged. A clear grain boundary can weaken the coupling of the grains and subsequently increase the signal-to-noise ratio. During writing process, ideally one grain can store one bit (1/0). However, current technology can not reach that far yet. In practice, a group of grains (about 100) are magnetized as one bit. So, in order to increase the data density, smaller grains are required. From microstructure point of view, longitudinal and perpendicular recording are the same. Also, similar Co-based thin films are used in both longitudinal and perpendicular recording. However, the fabrication processes are different to gain different crystal structure and magnetic properties. In longitudinal recording, the single-domain grains have uniaxial anisotropy with easy axes lying in the film plane. The consequence of this arrangement is that adjacent magnets repel each other. Therefore the magnetostatic energy is so large that it is difficult to increase areal density. Perpendicular recording media, on the other hand, has the easy axis of the grains oriented perpendicular to the disk plane. Adjacent magnets attract to each other and magnetostatic energy are much lower. So, much higher areal density can be achieved in perpendicular recording. Another unique feature in perpendicular recording is that a soft magnetic underlayer are incorporated into the recording disk.This underlayer is used to conduct writing magnetic flux so that the writing is more efficient. This will be discussed in writing process. Therefore, a higher anisotropy medium film, such as L10-FePt and rare-earth magnets, can be used.


Older drives read the data on the platter by sensing the rate of change of the magnetism in the head; these heads had small coils, and worked (in principle) much like magnetic-tape playback heads, although not in contact with the recording surface. As data density increased, read heads using magnetoresistance (MR) came into use; the electrical resistance of the head changed according to the strength of the magnetism from the platter. Later development made use of spintronics; in these heads, the magnetoresistive effect was much greater than in earlier types, and was dubbed “giant” magnetoresistance (GMR). This refers to the degree of effect, not the physical size, of the head — the heads themselves are extremely tiny, and are too small to be seen without a microscope. GMR read heads are now commonplace.


HD heads are kept from contacting the platter surface by the air that is extremely close to the platter; that air moves at, or close to, the platter speed. The record and playback head are mounted on a block called a slider, and the surface next to the platter is shaped to keep it just barely out of contact. It’s a type of air bearing.


The magnetic surface of each platter is conceptually divided into many small sub-micrometre-sized magnetic regions, each of which is used to encode a single binary unit of information. In today’s HDDs, each of these magnetic regions is composed of a few hundred magnetic grains. Each magnetic region forms a magnetic dipole which generates a highly localized magnetic field nearby. The write head magnetizes a region by generating a strong local magnetic field. Early HDDs used an electromagnet both to generate this field and to read the data by using electromagnetic induction. Later versions of inductive heads included metal in Gap (MIG) heads and thin film heads. In today’s heads, the read and write elements are separate, but in close proximity, on the head portion of an actuator arm. The read element is typically magneto-resistive while the write element is typically thin-film inductive.


In modern drives, the small size of the magnetic regions creates the danger that their magnetic state might be lost because of thermal effects. To counter this, the platters are coated with two parallel magnetic layers, separated by a 3-atom-thick layer of the non-magnetic element ruthenium, and the two layers are magnetized in opposite orientation, thus reinforcing each other. Another technology used to overcome thermal effects to allow greater recording densities is perpendicular recording, first shipped in 2005, as of 2007 the technology was used in many HDDs.