NanoMagnetics has new materials in store for memory market

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LONDON, Feb. 23, 2004 — British data storage company NanoMagnetics Ltd. took a route down a blind alley, but may have turned around quick enough to put it in firmly in the pack of companies applying nanotechnology to data storage.

The company had planned to take on the hard-disk-drive market. But a slump in the sector forced it to change strategy and instead focus on producing a flexible storage medium.

DataInk, NanoMagnetics’ new digital memory format, is set to go into commercial production and Eric Mayes, the company’s chief executive, expects to have a product on retailers’ shelves by early 2005.

Mayes said that the technology will offer 1.5 gigabytes of storage for $10. It will compete with products designed by Fuji and licensed to portable disk drive manufacturer Iomega.

NanoMagnetics has “engaged a contract manufacturer for large scale production of DataInk,” Mayes told the first meeting of the NanoMicroClub at London’s Royal Society. “We’re currently in a testing and evaluation stage and we expect products based on DataInk to ship in the first quarter of next year”.

The data storage market has been heavily targeted by venture capital firms and nanotech investors, with the $2.3 billion market seen as one of the most fruitful areas of nanoscience research.

In addition to Fuji, several other companies are looking to utilize nanoscience to boost the performance of data storage technology. In January, U.S. company ZettaCore Inc. (News, Web) announced that it had raised $17.5 million in a second round of funding to develop its “molecular memory”, while IBM has received extensive coverage for its Millipede memory research.

Bath, England-based NanoMagnetics was founded in 1999 by former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher Eric Mayes and former investment banker Nicholas Tyler. The company has received more than the $15 million in backing from several venture capital firms, including Amadeus Capital Partners Ltd.

NanoMagnetics plans to transform the market for magnetic data storage devices by improving the quality of the ferrous grains that make up the device. “We expect to be shipping a product offering a gigabyte of memory for $10 by 2005,” said Mayes.

At present, the storage capacity of magnetic storage devices such as disk drives face a limit on the amount of data they can store because of the nonuniform quality of the granules. This means that some of the smallest granules lose their magnetism, while the remaining granules are not packed as efficiently as possible, therefore reducing the density of the storage medium.

However, DataInk captures the granules in a shell of ferritin protein, which is more commonly seen storing iron in animals. “I moved my focus from physics to chemistry and biochemistry, and once I saw how protein could control an inorganic material I saw a solution to the problem” said Mayes.

The 12-nanometer shells have a uniform cavity of 8 nanometers, ensuring that each granule of iron is of a uniform size.

In the next few years, Mayes wants to exploit the self-organizing properties of ferritin; the regular size of the magnetic particles means that they can be uniformly stacked, like oranges on a supermarket shelf, enabling a far greater density of data storage. “The self-organizing properties of the technology we have developed should enable us to store several terabits on a square inch,” said Mayes.

Mayes said that the company has already surpassed the storage density achieved by traditional methods of magnetic storage such as floppy disks and hard disks. In May 2003 NanoMagnetics achieved a storage density of 17 gigabits of data per square inch. In flexible media the DataInk has a storage capacity of about 4.6 gigabits per square inch.

The next task for the company is to bring down the cost of manufacturing the DataInk. “We’re currently working with a U.K. based contract manufacturer of nanoparticles to scale up production.”

At the same time NanoMagnetics is working with consumer electronics companies who are searching for new cheap devices for storing the vast amounts of data created by multi-media formats. “If it all goes well we should be shipping products to market by early 2005” said Mayes.


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