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Matt Bach (Senior Puget Labs Technician)

Can you submerge a hard drive in mineral oil?

Written on September 9, 2013 by Matt Bach
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Ever since we started developing oil-submersion aquarium kits in 2007, there are a few questions that always come up. The most common is "how does it work?", and "can you put fish in there?" (short answer: no). A close runner up is if you can submerge the hard drive in the oil along with the rest of the components. Our answer has always been a yes for SSDs and a no for traditional platter hard drives due to the fact that platter drives are one of the few components in a computer that still have moving parts. If the hard drive was completely air-tight it would likely be fine, but hard drives have a small hole in the housing designed to equalize air pressure which would let oil in. Since there are parts that move very fast inside a hard drive, oil inside should be disastrous for the hard drive.  

While we are very confident in our answer, we have never actually tested to see exactly what happens. So, to finally set the record straight we decided to take the plunge and dunk a hard drive into mineral oil.

First, lets take a look at our setup:

Hard Drive submerged in mineral oil


As far as complexity goes, we kept it very simple. Using the 10 liter Tupperware that we are using in our new Mini ITX kits, we simply tied some string to an old Seagate 7200.9 160GB hard drive and suspended it in the oil. The drive was hooked up as a secondary storage drive to an ASUS Sabertooth Z87 with a Samsung 840 Pro 256GB SSD as the primary drive. Keeping the drive as a secondary drive will help us determine when (or if) the drive starts having read/write issues, starts performing slower, or if the drive simply disappears from the system altogether.

Results

Before we dunked the drive, we first established a baseline of how fast this drive performs normally. This is an older drive - so performance isn't all that great - but it should be more than enough for this test.

Once we established this baseline, we dunked the drive into the oil. Note that we left the system and drive powered up and running during this process. If the drive immediately died, we wanted to know right when that happened. We formatted the drive, confirmed it was available, and started loops of CrystalDiskMark to see how long the drive would last.

The answer: about 10 minutes. In fact, it wasn't even enough time for it to finish one pass of CrystalDiskMark!

The drive just completely disappeared on us. One interesting thing to note is that until it disappeared, the sequential read and write performance was pretty much identical to our baseline. So the thought that the drive would simply start performing slower and slower turns out to not be true.

Interestingly, when we shut off the system and turned it back on, the drive completely failed to spin up. We could hear and see it trying, but the motor just wasn't strong enough to get the platters to start spinning. If we lifted it up out of the oil and let it drain for a few minutes, the patters did eventually start spinning but the drive still was not detected by the OS.

Now we can definitively say that while you can lead a hard drive to mineral oil, you can't make it work.

Tags: mineral oil, hard drive, platter, submerge
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Posted on 2013-09-10 16:54:14
AV

Unless you plug the equalizer hole.

Posted on 2013-09-11 00:34:14

Even then, I don't think the drive will be sealed well enough to prevent the oil from eventually getting inside. I've taken a few drives apart, and there isn't any sort of seal between the pieces, everything is just very precisely machined. Its more than enough to keep out dust particles, but I really don't think it would be enough to keep out liquids.

Now, you could seal the entire drive in something, but personally I don't think it would be worth it.

Posted on 2013-09-11 01:09:27
Bahamuttone

Hm an Hard Drive has to be dust proof. Even the breather hole has a filter in it.
Usually there is a small gasket all around the case just under the lid.

Posted on 2016-07-25 09:01:41
bdot

If this was Mythbusters, you would have then proceeded to see if the hard drive would work if it was blown up with C4. :)

Posted on 2013-09-16 14:33:38

I like the way you think!

Posted on 2013-09-16 16:42:54
Neutron89

I read your bit about oil eating rubber, but what about silicon? I'm not too sure if that's considered a rubber or not, but I have a 1TB system drive with a 750GB secondary, it would really cost a lot to get those numbers in an SSD so I thought about asking you if it would be possible/worth it to just plug the hole and coat the edges with a silicon sealant, I know it would keep water out, but then again water doesn't eat through rubber. Then the air pressure comes to mind.
Keep me posted.
-Steve

Posted on 2014-03-02 08:02:07

Matt's comments above indicate that even just covering the hole may not seal the drive completely - and as you noted, there is a reason that hole needs to be open as well.

The easier answer is just to use your existing drives but not submerge them. The various kits we've offered have almost always had at least one hard drive mount elevated above the oil level. You might need to consolidate into a single larger capacity drive (2TB+) but that would still be far less expensive than SSDs.

Posted on 2014-03-02 17:40:30
Neutron89

Hey there Matt, when I posted I hadn't checked into your kits fully, spent a couple of hours looking at them and they seem really well set up, I actually like the elevated HDD.
And I had another question, once the parts are submerged would they have to stay that way or is mineral oil easy to clean up, for example, if I upgraded a video card and wanted to give my wife my old one, would I have to submerge hers too (because dust and dirt love oil) or would the mineral oil simply dry up if left to dry for a few days.
Thanks for the reply.
-Steve

Posted on 2014-03-02 22:34:57

I've heard of people being able to clean the mineral oil off of components, but I think that is an urban legend more than anything. We've tried to reuse components before, and it never worked well. No matter how hard you try, its going to be almost impossible to clean all the mineral oil off and mineral oil doesn't really evaporate like water. So I would highly recommend you consider anything you submerge to be unusable for anything else.

Posted on 2014-03-03 19:39:46
Neutron89

Alrighty, thanks for the replies guys, great info :) I think the work your company does is amazing stuff, keep it up.
-Steve

Posted on 2014-03-03 23:51:14
TafThorne

You could probably use a thinner oil as a rinse. I use paraffin or white spirit to clean gear oil (light motor oil) and engine oil off of metal parts. You get little baths with pumps build in for doing just this in some machine workshop environments too. These pass the dirty oil mix through a fine oil filter and a settling tank to generate clean(er) thin oil again for reuse. Any residue paraffin should then evaporate at room temperature. You can also use acetone and other such solvents as a wash.

IN ALL CASES YOU MUST TEST THE WASH DOES NOT EAT YOU PART.
I wiped one of my PS4 controllers with a cloth that had acetone on it and it instantly killed the shiney finish on the controller and left a black smear on my cloth.

Posted on 2017-10-24 11:48:00
AR

The real question is: "Why would you want to?"

There are no performance improvements you can achieve on a harddrive by dunking it in oil. Mounting it properly to a rigid chassis (to minimise external vibration) and keeping it within it's voltage and temperature spec will allow it to run at its best speed.

Posted on 2014-06-10 22:04:31

Why would you want to? To reduce noise and dissipate heat.

But yes, we agree there is no performance reason. We simply got asked the question often, so we went MythBusters on it :)

Posted on 2014-06-10 22:06:51

I dunno, Jon - we didn't blow anything up, so can it be truly said that 'we went MythBusters on it'? ;)

Posted on 2014-06-10 22:17:11
Zeet

Do you realize Puget is a french brand of olive oil ? xD

Posted on 2014-12-09 00:36:31

Yeah, the name Puget is definitely French. It is the name of a local body of water near us, for which this part of our country is known (the Puget Sound region).

The name was given to this body of water by the explorer George Vancouver, in honor of one of his crew, Peter Puget, who was a Huguenot.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wik...

Posted on 2014-12-09 00:40:49
Micah Roth

what about the helium filled (air sealed) drives? http://www.amazon.com/HGST-...

Posted on 2015-03-19 04:26:29

Those would probably work for a while at least. The problem with mineral oil is that it really quickly weakens and eats away at rubber, which is probably what they used to seal those drives.

My guess is that it would great for about 2 weeks, then suddenly fail when the oil starts to degrade the rubber seal. Of course, that's assuming the seal is rubber which I could totally be wrong about.

Posted on 2015-03-19 16:46:05
Bart T

I know what the problem is... it a Seagate

Posted on 2016-10-09 13:48:25
Chimney Swift

How about one of those new helium filled drives? obviously those are sealed otherwise the helium would leak out so theoretically they would work right?!

Posted on 2017-08-31 08:15:26
gabak

take it apart and see how much oil is in it

Posted on 2017-11-28 18:49:36