HGST, a Western Digital subsidiary, just announced a helium-filled 6TB hard drive — the world’s first discretely 6TB drive, mind you. Naturally, the helium part’s driving a bunch of pun-blighted headlines absurdly comparing hard drives to balloons, but there’s reason to be cautiously excited about the helium angle: The point of trapping helium in a hard drive is to make the drive more energy efficient as well as increase its capacity. That’s not easily done, and HGST is taking a victory lap to celebrate the fact that it’s first to market with the Ultrastar He6 hard drive.
As noted, part of the allure here is that we’re talking a single 6TB 3.5-inch hard drive, not something like two 3TB hard drives in a RAID cluster. A single 6TB drive is a big deal if you’re stacking bunches of these things together in server arrays or building out large storage clusters where physical space is precious.
HGST says the Ultrastar He6 is “the world’s first hermetically sealed, helium hard drive.” Because helium is only one-seventh as dense as air, HGST says that using it in lieu of air within the drive “dramatically reduces the turbulence caused by the spinning disk.” What’s more, helium cuts power consumption, in turn lowering the drive’s temperature, so we’re talking about cascading benefits.
More detail from HGST:
The reduction in turbulence for the spinning disk allows HGST to offer a seven-disk design in a traditional 3.5-inch form factor. In addition to being the world’s first helium-filled hard drive, HGST Ultrastar He6 is also the first hard drive in the industry to offer a 6-terabyte capacity. This design delivers a 50% capacity gain and still reduces the energy needed to run the drive by up to 23%.
Aren’t we running out of helium? Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, but it’s rare on Earth — most commonly found in natural gas, which is where most commercial helium comes from. You can’t synthesize it (it took more or less the entire natural history of the planet to form), and every time you free it, it’s up, up and away, gone forever.
With helium shortages occurring right now and the price of helium skyrocketing, the question’s how much commercial demand might affect manufacturing costs (well beyond the balloon industry) in products that depend on the increasingly sparse element. It may be telling that HGST hasn’t announced a price for the Ultrastar He6 at this time.