Professor Works to Improve the Longevity of Magnetic Data Storage Devices
December 1, 2006
Toby Weber
Photo by Jeff Shaw
Photo by Jeff Shaw

A professor with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering is conducting research that could help drive the data storage industry for years to come, as well as enable the creation of unimagined medical devices.

Stanko Brankovic, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, along with co-investigator James Rantschler of Sentorix, Inc., has received grant support from the National Science Foundation worth almost $150,000 to develop a new class of magnetic materials that are highly resistant to corrosion.

Corrosion, said Brankovic, is one of the primary obstacles in the utilization of magnetic materials. Typically, the stronger the magnetism of a material, the more useful it is, since stronger magnetism allows the material to store data more easily.

Materials with high magnetic moment, a measure of the strength of a materials magnetism, typically corrode very quickly. The materials with the highest magnetic properties, in fact, will corrode in just a few days when exposed to nothing but air.

“Corrosion limits their application, because in any kind of harsh environment, they just disappear,” said Brankovic.

This corrosion is particularly troublesome for the magnetic data storage industry. As data storage demand grows, companies in this sector are struggling to create devices with higher storage capacity. Because of corrosion, however, they are limited in device capacity, as well as in the length of the warranties they offer.

Through this research, Brankovic will try to overcome the problem of corrosion by combining materials with high magnetic moment with a small percentage—somewhere around one percent—of noble metals, which are highly resistant to corrosion. The goal is to combine these materials in such a way that the new alloy maintains a high magnetic moment but at the same time does not corrode quickly.

The task will be further complicated by the fact that the ratio of magnetic material to noble metal will likely be different in the bulk scale versus the nanoscale, which is the realm in which many data storage and medical applications will operate in the future. This likely difference will arise, said Brankovic, because certain properties are magnified in the nanoscale, while others diminish in importance.

Should this research prove successful, the materials Brankovic creates will allow the magnetic data storage industry to produce devices with higher capacity and longer lives. Such devices should also be more reliable, since they are more resistant to corrosion, and may even be less expensive than their predecessors because manufactures will likely have fewer warranty reimbursements to issue.

The potential impact of these materials on the medical field could be even bigger. Because highly magnetic materials are so susceptible to corrosion, there are especially unsuitable for medical applications. Hospitals, for example, have various chemicals from cleaners in the air, and human bodily fluids are also corrosive.

If magnetic materials are developed that can withstand such corrosive environments, they can be used in many new and innovative medical applications, Brankovic said.

Many potential devices that could be created with this material have not yet been thought up, said Brankovic, simply because they have not been possible.

“You could create whole new concepts just because the materials are available. You could create a magnetic stent that could be placed in an artery and expanded with a magnetic field,” he said. “If you have good materials, it opens the door to who knows what.”

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