"The idea of this facility is to increase the capabilities of the technology, but more importantly develop it to the point where we can get a partnership, take this medium into an integrated device and start shipping it," Eric Mayes, NanoMagnetics co-founder and chief technical officer, told nanotechweb.org.

Originally set up in 1996 in a kitchen, NanoMagnetics has grown fast. Today the company has 14 employees and a 10 000 sq. ft research and development facility, as well as more than $10 million in venture backing.

NanoMagnetics' technology has a biological background - animals, plants and bacteria use ferritin molecules to store iron in the form of iron oxide. "Nature has built this clever storehouse to put the iron in," said Mayes. "We've developed a set of chemistries that allow us to put metal alloys, in particular cobalt-platinum, inside the cavity. We start with an empty bottle and build a ship inside it."

A key advantage of the ferritin molecules is that they are always the same size - effectively a "12 nm diameter cage with an 8 nm cavity". NanoMagnetics uses the molecules as "organic templates" that limit the diameter of the metal alloy grains created inside them to a maximum of 8 nm.

Once it has created the alloy nanoparticles, NanoMagnetics coats them onto standard glass disk substrates by spin- or dip-coating. Then it anneals the film to cause a phase transition and align the particles - a process that optimizes their magnetic properties and also converts the ferritin molecules to carbon.

"The idea is then to take that disk and do all of the same types of processing that happen to disks today," explained Mayes, who reckons that the hard disk drive industry is so big that it's difficult to displace the incumbent technology. "We wanted a technology that would change the least number of parameters for them - that would work with the same heads and electronics, with manufacturing equipment identical except for the coating technology."

Back in 1999, NanoMagnetics used its ferritin technology to demonstrate a credit card film with a data storage capacity of 75 bits per inch. "In August of last year, we went from 75 bits per inch to the more realistic 0.7 Gbit/sq. in," said Mayes. "In December we managed to hit a milestone we had planned for January - 2.2 Gbit/sq. in." Now the aim is to achieve 8 Gbit/sq. in by the summer.

"We're providing a roadmap for getting from the densities that we're at now to the terabits regime, at least for this protein," added Mayes. "We can go slightly beyond that with other proteins that we're starting to look at."

NanoMagnetics says that it is aiming to partner with a major industrial player and hopes to be in production by the second half of 2003.

The company is also working on other applications of its technology, including nanoparticle-based catalysts, fluids for magnetic-resonance imaging applications, and materials that will absorb microwave radiation.