Using human protein to deliver a breakthrough in storage technology might seem like a ludicrous idea, but this is what a small company in Bristol, UK, has set out to achieve.
Venture-capital backed NanoMagnetics is developing a revolutionary ultra-high density storage technology that, it claims, will increase the storage capacity of fixed and removable magnetic media by a staggering factor of 4,500. The technique, devised by co-founder and chief technology officer Eric Mayes, involves coating the metals platinum and cobalt in the protein apoferritin. Mayes claims the result is a material capable of storing more bits of data than ever onto a magnetic disk.
Mayes, a former researcher at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discovered that apoferritin could be used to grow smaller and more uniform magnetic grains than existing magnetic thin-film technologies. This addresses the problem of grains losing their magnetic effect – and therefore the ability to store data, says CEO Brendan Hegarty.
In 1997, Mayes co-founded NanoMagnetics in a bid to exploit his idea. He recruited Hegarty, a former chief operating officer of hard disk-drive vendor Seagate Technology, in June 2001. Hegarty says the company intends to sell the technology to hard disk drive manufacturers. These vendors would then 'bake' NanoMagnetics' chemical, held in liquid form, onto their own storage disks.
The company has some way to go before the technology is commercially available. Hegarty says it will not start selling its product until the end of 2003. In the meantime, the challenge is to get its technology to a level where it can compete with the magnetic film approach of other hard disk vendors, he says.
At present, it has only been able to demonstrate a storage density metric of 2.2 gigabits per square inch. In comparison, several vendors have already demonstrated products boasting more than 30 gigabits per square inch. In 18 months' time, however, NanoMagnetics hopes to have a product with a storage density of 100 gigabits per square inch. Ultimately, says Hegarty, the technology has the potential to deliver 4.5 terabytes per square inch.
To pay for further research and to commercialise its technology, Nanomagnetics has raised around €12 million in two rounds of funding.
The danger for NanoMagnetics is that a hard disk drive vendor could develop a similar protein-based technology and close the window of opportunity. Hegarty dismisses this, however, pointing to the company's patent protection and lack of any direct competitors.