Researchers in Singapore say they've found a way to use common table salt to increase by 5.3 times the density by which bits of data can be stored on a hard disk drive platter.

The discovery, they said, will allow from 1.9 Tbit/in. to 3.3 Tbit/in. or six times what a Seagate 4TB hard drive has today, which is 625Gb/in. Given that today's hard drives can come with as much as 4TB of capacity , theoretically, the new technology would allow more than 21TB of data on a single drive.

The secret of the research lies in the use of an extremely high-resolution e-beam lithography, which is the process by which fine nano-sized circuitry is created.

By adding sodium chloride (salt) to a developer solution used in lithography processes, the researchers were able to produce highly defined nanostructures that were as small as 4.5 nanometers (nm), without the need for expensive equipment upgrades.

A nanometer is equal to one-billionth the size of a meter. Today's NAND flash-based solid-state drives use lithography processes that create circuitry about 25nm in width; a human hair is 3,000 times thicker than 25nm.

An example of how nanopatterning more closely packs bits of data together.

The researchers' "salty developer solution" method was invented by Joel Yang, a scientist at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Yang first developed the method when he was a graduate student at MIT. Yang and researchers from the National University of Singapore and the Data Storage Institute, perfected the nanopatterning technique.

In the simplest of terms, nanopatterning more closely packs miniature structures that hold information in the form of bits. "What we have shown is that bits can be patterned more densely together by reducing the number of processing steps," Yang said in a statement. Scientists use the term "grain" to describe the packages of bits deposited on the surface of the platter.

Current technology uses tiny grains, about 7 nanometers or 8 nanometers in size, deposited on the surface of storage media, Yang said. However, a single bit of data is stored in a cluster of these "grains" and not in any single "grain." The researchers' bits are about 10nm in size but store information in a single structure. The researchers are now working to increase the storage density even further.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

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