Parkin’s innovation enabled 1000-fold growth in the capacity of hard drives
IBM physicist and spintronics pioneer professor Stuart Parkin has been chosen as the recipient of the 2014 Millennium Technology Prize for the invention of the ‘spin-valve’ read head technology.
Parkin’s innovation took advantage of the physical properties of electrons and helped achieve a dramatic increase in hard drive capacity. It was commercialised in 1997 and is present in the majority of HDDs shipped today.
Without Parkin’s contributions, the digital revolution would have stalled in the face of the increasing quantities of data, and cloud-based services like Facebook or YouTube would not exist as we know them.
The father of storage
“Prof. Parkin’s innovations represent the true spirit and every aspect of the Millennium Technology Prize: ground-breaking innovations opening up possibilities to totally new services which address a large audience and improve the quality of life,” said Juha Ylä-Jääski, CEO of Technology Academy Finland.
“Furthermore, in the future Prof. Parkin’s innovations may pave the way to a totally new era in computing with dramatically increased capacity and reduced power consumption.”
As part of the award, the inventor will receive a €1 million (£824,000) grant.
The Millennium Prize is awarded by the Technology Academy of Finland (TAF) every two years, to celebrate important scientific research and technology that has improves the quality of human life. Previous winners of the award include Linus Torvalds and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Today, businesses of all sizes are struggling with the increasing amounts of data that needs to be stored and processed, but this problem is not new. In the nineties, they were facing the same problem – which was helped by the introduction of the spin-valve technology.
Parkin was born in Watford and received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He invented the spin-valve read head in 1989 while studying the atomic properties of spintronic materials at IBM Research. The innovation allowed engineers to decrease the size of the tracks on a magnetic medium, resulting in 1000 times larger hard drive capacities and cheaper storage.
Over the course of his career, Parkin has written around 400 papers and registered around 90 patents. After radically improving hard drives, he continued to work with semiconductors and storage, eventually coming up with Racetrack memory – a technology that uses magnetic nanowires as high-density data storage devices and has the potential to out-perform flash memory and RAM, while being considerably cheaper and more power-efficient than both.
“Who would have known that my invention would one day sit at the heart of today’s cloud, social media and data analytics applications, and affect the way people share information and communicate with each other on the Internet, on our mobile devices and across the world,” said Parkin. “This prize is a wonderful affirmation of the importance and relevance of my research on artificially-engineered materials, which has been the focus of my work for over 30 years.”
Today, Parkin continues to work at IBM Research in California as the manager of the Magnetoelectronics group and the director of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Centre. He also serves as the director of the Max Planck Institute for Microstructure Physics and a consulting professor in the Department of Applied Physics at Stanford University.
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