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Stanford Magnetics Lab Attracts industry interest, Support

STANFORD - The recently established Stanford Center for Research on Information Storage Materials marks the entrance of Stanford University researchers and students into the $40 billion magnetic disk industry.

The conception of Professor Robert L. White, the center was created to train graduate students in the area of magnetic materials research and to encourage collaborative research between the magnetic disk industry and Stanford.

"This is an industry which has clearly outrun its knowledge base," White said. "There are many good problems here for Ph.D. thesis research and a real market in this industry for well-trained students."

White, a professor with dual appointments in the electrical engineering and materials science engineering departments, first conceived the idea for the center in 1990, when he noted a resurgence in research into magnetics, particularly into "thin-film materials," which were revolutionizing the information storage industry.

Magnetic thin films are essential components of hard disks. These thin films are used in both the storage medium, on which the information is written, and the recording heads, which write and retrieve the information. With new advances in thin-film research, White said, storage density has increased so dramatically that the same amount of memory that once required a device the size of a small refrigerator can now be found in a device the size of a deck of playing cards.

However, according to White, "another shrinkage by a factor of as much as 20 is possible if a set of scientific and technological problems can be solved."

As Silicon Valley companies jumped into thin-film research, White recognized an opportunity.

"At the time," said White, "very few people [at Stanford] were working on magnetics. There was no industry support, no federal funds, and no infrastructure to provide equipment."

The center, which was approved in March 1991, changed all that. Guest lecturers on magnetics have arrived at Stanford to teach courses on the principles of magnetic recording, and there is a current search for a new faculty member in the area of information storage. In addition, 18 graduate students are currently working on magnetic information storage projects.

Area companies have been positive in their response to the program.

"People are pleased to see Stanford become involved in magnetics research since Stanford sits in the middle of the disk industry. They are also pleased by the quality of the Stanford students they hope to hire," White said.

Many businesses, particularly IBM, Hewlett-Packard and DEC, have made generous donations or loans of equipment and money. IBM has given Stanford synthesis and analysis systems worth nearly $2 million. H- P has made two major gifts of new measurement equipment, with an estimated value of $50,000 each.

The center also received a research initiation grant of $100,000 from IBM in December 1991, which recently was renewed. Not only does the grant support research in information storage materials and more extensive training for students, but it also encourages joint research efforts between Stanford faculty and IBM industrial scientists.

The Stanford center, one of just a handful of information storage laboratories across the country, is unique because it focuses on materials, particularly thin films and thin-film coatings.

"Although we are a young center, we are already a presence in the information storage materials field," said White. "We are beginning to be asked to give invited talks, and had over 20 publications in the field last year."

Currently six faculty members and 18 graduate students are involved in magnetics research through the center; White hopes that the numbers will increase to eight faculty and 30 students and that there will be further transfer of technology from the academic fields to the industry.


This story was written by Emmeline Chen, a science writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


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