Western Digital's HGST division is already shipping its new helium-filled, 6TB Ultrastar He6 to data centre customers. The hermetically sealed drive uses half the power per terabyte of its unpressurised counterparts.
The new Ultrastar He6 hard drives are an invention of HGST, the Western Digital subsidiary that was previously owned by Hitachi. Beyond the already-impressive achievement of filling a 3.5-inch hard drive with helium and properly sealing it, the UltraStar HE6 also sports an impressive 6TB storage capacity, whereas most other drives top out around 4TB.
Helium has one seventh the density of air, so using it as the medium for Western Digital's new hard drives means less friction and less turbulence inside the drive casing. Less friction means lower power consumption and energy loss due to heat, which is crucial for the components inside a power-hungry data centre.
Less turbulence also means that drive platters can be stacked more closely together, with the HE6 drive fitting seven magnetic disks where air-filled drives can only fit five. This more compact layout is responsible for the drive's extra capacity. All these improvements mean 23 per cent less power usage when idling and 49 per cent less power usage per terabyte overall.
According to Engadget, big, storage-hungry tech firms — such as HP, Netflix, Huawei and European science agency CERN — are interested in the new drives. You probably won't see them on the shelves of your computer store any time soon, but Western Digital is using the helium-based concept for research into other drives that might be available to consumers in the future.
Traditional spinning-disk hard drives are facing increasing competition from flash memory, which is much faster and more energy efficient but costs significantly more per gigabyte. Hybrid drives, which use a mix of flash storage and traditional spinning platters, hit a compromise, with faster speeds for reading commonly accessed data.