Western Digital's HGST: Helium-Filled Hard Drives


The advantages of helium over air for filling hard drives have been known for decades, and the idea of doing so was patented as early as 1980, according to a recent white paper published by Xyratex, a Fremont, Calif.-based storage vendor.

Helium dramatically reduces the turbulence caused by the spinning disk, cuts power consumption, and results in a more uniform temperature within the disk drive. It is also less damaging to the protective coatings of components within the drive, Xyratex wrote.

While helium has been used for testing hard drives for leaks for years, it has not been found suitable for sealing inside a drive for commercial purposes. Hard drives have not been able to be hermetically sealed with existing technology so that helium will gradually leak out and while atmospheric pressure will eventually cause air to leak inside, Xyratex wrote.

Helium poses another long-term potential problem in terms of availability. There is a finite amount of the gas available on earth, and it is difficult to extract in quantity. The primary reserve is held by the U.S. government, which stockpiled it years ago when it was used for lighter-than-air aircraft. The government is now selling off all but a strategic reserve by 2015, after which the price could increase by about 50 times, Xyratex wrote.

HGST has invested in the components and processes needed to seal hard drives hermetically to prevent helium from leaking out and air from leaking in, Collins said.

For now, the process is being applied to large-capacity 3.5-inch hard drives, which use disks with a 95mm diameter, Collins said. "The bigger the disk, the more the flutter, and so helium helps," he said. "Performance drives use 65mm disks, so there is less flutter. But that may be an issue in another three to five years."

Western Digital's HGST business will be first to market with helium-filled hard drives even though competitors have been working on the technology for at least as long as HGST, Collins said.

PUBLISHED SEPT. 13, 2012