The Next Step in Storage Technology
ChemE Professor Lei Li receives over $500k to develop a new lubricant for hard disk drives
Hard disk drives (HDD), digital data storage devices, are essential. Without one? Your music – gone. Your photos and videos – gone. All other important passwords and files – gone.
These devices, which store information by using rotating disks with a media lubricant, are widely used and the market for them is expected to continue upward. The nanometer-thick lubricant is a key step in the next generation of HDD technology, called Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR); however, the current type of lubricant isn’t capable for the needs of HAMR.
Lei Li, professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering and Principal Investigator, received $542,751 from the National Science Foundation over the next two years to develop a novel lubricant to coat the latest devices in HDD technology.
“In HAMR, media lubricant needs to have high thermal stability, high fly clearance, low surface tension and polar end groups that provide bonding to the substrate,” explained Li, who has nine years of experience in the HDD industry and 13 years of academic research on coatings. “The state-of-art lubricant, perfluoropolyether, is not nearly thermally stable enough and usually results in lower fly clearance thus lower recording destiny. We need a lubricant that is capable of it all.”
Engineering an Ionic Lubricant That Can Do It
Ionic liquids just about meet the mark because of their high thermal stability and tribology performance, but they still have their limitations.
Li and his team have been in the process of developing a new ionic liquid, called HFIL-OH, which has a lower surface tension and higher thermal stability than perfluoropolyether. (US Patent 11603504)
“HFIL-OH shows a lot of promise, but there are still hurdles we need to overcome to establish HFIL-OH as the next-generation media lubricant for the HDD industry,” Li said. “To do this, we will first improve the yield of the synthetic reaction and then scale-up the synthesis. Last but not least, drive-level industry testing will be conducted by Seagate Technology LLC, our industry partner, to fully demonstrate the advantage of HFIL-OH with respect to perfluoropolyether.”
The project, “PFI-TT: Novel ionic liquid lubricant for next-generation information storage technology,” will begin October 2023.
As part of this research, Li and his team will develop next-generation engineers with both engineering training and entrepreneurial mindsets and skills.
The education objective of this project will be in two stages. In the first year, Li and his students will participate in the NSF I-Corps Teams Program. In the second year, with the direction of a commercialization expert, the team will develop a detailed business plan. At the end of the project, the goal is to form a small business to bring the HFIL-OH lubricant to the market.