Researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are monitoring the temperature of hard drives used on the campus to work out whether they can extend their life beyond the average three years. They say that slight temperature variations could indicate looming failure.

The university's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES) have designed a special monitor, known as the Critter Temperature sensor, about the size of a 5p coin, which measures hard drive temperature. It is being deployed on desktop computers in offices and labs on the campus.

Project scientist Michael Bigrigg said: "Essentially what we are trying to do is save the life of the computer hard drive. Hard drives get hot and the sensor is designed to pick up the slightest temperature variation."

The average lifespan of a computer hard drive, according to industry analysts, is about 600,000 hours - around 68 years. The Carnegie Mellon researchers predict that they may be able to extend the lifespan of a computer hard drive and save users time and money by sensing how much daily heat a hard drive endures. On average, it costs $80 to $200 to repair a damaged hard drive, according to ICES.

The problem comes with desktop hard drives being used in serial ATA form as storage arrays. While the best use cycle (balancing long life with use) for them is not known scientifically, it is thought that it is between daily working hours. In short, hard drvies are not built for 24x7 use.

Any increase in knowledge would be very useful for business users better manage the duty cycle and total cost of ownership of SATA drive arrays. However it is likely that more sophisticated research will need to be undertaken, for example, into vibrational effects as SATA drives in an array are simultaneously active.