While almost 80% of palladium produced is used in manufacturing catalytic converters in gasoline vehicles, researchers have found a potential new use for palladium – data storage.
Global data storage demand has been ballooning at an alarming rate, creating the need for new techniques to outperform current memory technologies.
In one such technique, extremely thin films of palladium are used to create skyrmions, miniscule magnetic disturbances which can store data.
Collins Dictionary defines skyrmions as “a particle consisting of a magnetic field surrounding a group of atoms”. It got its sci-fi-sounding name when it was named after British physicist Tony Hilton Royle Skyrme.
How Are Skyrmions Formed?
When two films of different, select metals are pressed together and manipulated with an electric field, it creates a magnetic field and along with it, skyrmions.
Skyrmions range anywhere from a nanometer to a few hundred nanometers in diameter, and are up to 10 times more space-efficient than traditional hard disks.
Researchers from the National University of Singapore have successfully created stable skyrmions spin textures by pairing cobalt and palladium films, while others also had results with a palladium-iron combination.
When the technology is fully developed, it will allow devices to have larger storage capacities, faster data-writing and retrieval speeds, all while occupying less real estate than traditional hard drives.
These qualities will allow skyrmions (and palladium) to find its way into the ever-growing population of hard disks, mobile computers and devices, and any equipment that requires data storage.
What Does This Mean for the Palladium Industry?
The additional demand from data storage will definitely please palladium miners, the primary producers of the precious metal.
Catalytic converters, the main consumers of palladium, currently are at risk of declining as governments worldwide are seeking to ban the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles in the mid to long term.
Widespread adoption of palladium-based skyrmions will create a much-needed dilution in palladium demand from the catalytic converter industry, diversifying risks that palladium producers face.
Palladium recyclers, or secondary producers, also look forward to the new application. The additional demand will serve to prop up palladium prices, which also protects the profitability of the recyclers. Skyrmion-based data storage devices will also become a new source of scrap palladium materials for these recyclers.
Further Research Required
However, much work needs to be done before skyrmions can become mainstream in data storage.
Like most technologies, one of the first hurdles to overcome would be mass production. Researchers will need to find a production method that is both cost-effective and scalable.
The second hurdle is in reading data stored on skyrmions. Currently, the only way to read such data is through X-ray magnetic spectroscopy, which is too costly and complicated to become part of any data storage system.
While palladium’s potential in the data storage sector is promising, we cannot expect to realise this potential until these two hurdles are overcome.
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