It turns out the universe’s second most-common element is also the key to bigger hard drives.

Western Digital is shipping its new Hitachi-made hard drive, the Ultrastar He6, which harnesses the power of helium to pack more disk platters — and hence terabytes — into the same amount of space.

The science behind the drive is simple, but brilliant. By introducing helium (which is the lightest element) to the high-speed spinning chaos of hard drives, the new drive reduces the drag that limits the number of platters that can be stacked in one enclosure. So disks that once held five platters now hold seven, letting Western Digital create single drives as large as 6TB.


Above: More TB, same space.

Western Digital’s new drives also cut down on noise and power consumption — a huge deal for cloud data centers, which are under constant pressure not only to improve storage capacity, but do it while saving operators cash on energy costs.

While the idea of helium-infused hard drives is still relatively unproven, it’s already gotten the attention of HP, Netflix, and Huawei, all of which are implementing the new drives in some way or another.

So, no, Western Digital isn’t just full of hot air here.

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