Professor Stuart Parkin has won the 2014 Millennium Technology Prize for his work on spintronic materials

Physicist wins �1m prize for work on disk drives

A physicist who pioneered the use of hard drives and cloud-based storage has won a major technology award.

Professor Stuart Parkin has been awarded the 2014 Millennium Technology Prize by the Technology Academy in Helsinki, Finland, following in the footsteps of previous winner Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with the invention of the World Wide Web.

The physicist is receiving the award, which has seen other winners go on to win Nobel Prizes, in recognition for his work on increasing the capacity of storage disk drives, which are used in modern-day hard drives, that kick started the “Big Data revolution”.

Parkin, who is now based at IBM in the USA but is originally from Watford in the UK, said: "I'm very happy, very honoured and very grateful to the Technology Academy for awarding me this prize. The president of the academy called me while I was at a meeting in Washington, so it was a very nice surprise."

A discovery in 1988 in the field of spintronics, which relies on the magnetic spin of electrons rather than their charge to store information, led to the innovation of the small disk drives that read information we see today.

These drives are what are used to store and then stream music, films, images and other data on portable devices, and in giant data centres that form part of the cloud.

Parkin’s work increased the capacity ability on storage on disk by more than one thousand per cent and it also paved the way for the cloud storage data centres that are used by millions every year to store their information in the cloud through services such as Apple's iCloud.

The selection committee said: “Professor Stuart Parkin is awarded the Millennium Technology Prize for his pioneering contribution to the science and application of spintronic materials, his work leading to a prodigious growth in the capacity to store digital information. Parkin’s achievements have greatly facilitated the occurrence of the ‘big data’ revolution and significantly transformed human access to knowledge.”

Parkin gained a PhD in physics from Cambridge University in 1981 before first working with IBM in 1997, when the technology giant began to use his disk drive in their own products, making it the industry standard.

"What this means for the typical person is that they can access vast libraries – indeed all the books ever written – they can stream movies, search for any information, go on social media and share photos with their friends, and much more," said Parkin.

"It's incredibly satisfying to have been working on something for a number of years and watch it continue to evolve over time. I'm very happy the research I did all those years ago has become such a big part of life today and is so widely used.

"Without this device and this technology, the modern world as we know it probably wouldn't exist – the idea of disk drives and storing data in the cloud. To think that this tiny device can contain all that information, it didn't seem possible all those years ago."

The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded for technological innovation, and winners in the past have included Dr Shinya Yamanaka, whose work on stem cell research not only won him the award in 2012, but also the Nobel Prize for medicine.

As well as the prestige of the award, there is a prize fund of €1m (£827,000), but Prof Parkin is yet to consider the financial impact.

"I haven't really thought about what to do with the money yet. It's such a substantial amount," he said. "It's just such an honour to be in such illustrious company, with people who have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. It's very exciting and I'm very honoured."

According to Parkin, the award will also not stop him from continuing his work, which has involved the invention of synthetic materials, and he will keep looking to innovate in the nanotechnology field.

"I'm still working on trying to discover new materials and how they can then be applied to technology, and have an eye on how it can potentially change the world. This age we live in – the technology age – is cutting edge and we are looking for new materials that can change lives. It's very exciting but also very challenging."

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