Nobel Prize for Physics awarded for hard drive technology

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

College Park (MD) - In the late 1980s, two scientists working independently discovered what we now call giant magnetoresistance, or GMR.  It's the read-head phenomena in high-density hard drives which makes hard drive technology possible.  Today, the Nobel Committee announced that in 2007, nearly twenty years after their research was published, they will receive the Nobel Prize for Physics.

In 1994, when Albert Fert of Université Paris-Sud, Orsay, France (now 69 years old), and Peter Grünberg of Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany (now 68 years old), received the McGroddy Prize for New Materials along with Stuart Parkin, they had already seen years of success with hard drives using their technology.  They probably thought their discovery had reached its ultimate achievement, advancing mankind's storage ability significantly.  And yet, a mere thirteen years later they've now received the big prize.

Thin film structures, such as those used internally to store data in hard drives, accept minute magnetic field changes when data is written by the read/write heads.  These “deposit” extremely small pockets of magnetic fields onto the surface at very high speed.  What Fert and Grünberg discovered was that even though the magnetic fields were extremely small, there were large, easily discernable variations present in their electrical resistance.  This resulted in the ability to read and write very small amounts of magnetic data in a hard drive at high speed using low power, while still being able to accurately retrieve the data.

What's even more exciting is that many scientists believe the true significance of GMR has yet to be realized in practical applications.  Concepts like spin-selective transistors could provide real, practical avenues in optical and quantum computers.  These are still being researched and it is believed the technology will be perfected.  As it is for Bert and Grünberg, it might turn out that even after having won the Nobel Prize for Physics, the best is still yet to come.

Fert published his work in Physical Review Letters (PRL) on November 21, 1988.  His paper remains one of the top ten most frequently cited papers in their history.  Grünberg, on the other hand, did not have his work published until March 1, 1989.  However, he had submitted his paper about nine months earlier.

Both are credited with describing and accurately harnessing the GMR.  And now, having been identified as co-creators by the Nobel Committee, they now both share in the honor of being awarded 2007 Nobel Prize for Physics.  The prize carries with it much prestige, esteem, honor, and of course a solid message that their work has contributed greatly to society.  It also carries with it a $1.5 million dollar prize, which they will share.