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Permanent 'Superman crystal' holographic storage is etched with the Bible, Magna Carta

Mark Hachman | Feb. 17, 2016
A type of crystalline storage with an estimated lifespan of billions of years has been tested with documents encoded using the technology.

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A researcher holds a crystal etched with a copy of the King James Bible. Credit: U. of Southampton

Researchers at the University of Southampton in the U.K. say they’ve been able to etch some of mankind’s most famous documents on a “5-dimensional” crystalline storage medium estimated to have a lifespan of billions of years.

The researchers used self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz crystal to store data in five “dimensions,” writing each file in three layers of nanostructured dots separated by five micrometers of blank space. The data is encoded using the standard three dimensions of width, height, and depth. The fourth and fifth “dimensions” assign values to the size of the data “dot,” and how it is aligned. 

That all works out to a theoretical data capacity of 360 terabytes that can be stored in the dimensions of a conventional disc, like a DVD, the researchers said. The fused quartz essentially lasts forever, or 13.8 billion years at 190 degrees centigrade. It’s also thermally stable up to 1,000°C, the researchers claim.

Why this matters: The Superman comics and movies showed how the native Kryptonians stored their stored knowledge on crystals, which young Kal-El (Superman) was able to access in his Fortress of Solitude. So yes, it’s really pretty cool to see these “Superman crystals” become reality. What we truly need, though, is an archival storage medium that can be read decades down the road. Who has a floppy disc drive any more? Or even a CD-ROM reader? The cloud is one solution, but only if we trust our personal information will be safe for generations in the hands of businesses who may or may not care that our digital lives are preserved. 

A permanent record

The problem with the media that we’ve come to associate with computers is that most older formats simply aren’t permanent. According to the National Archives, magnetic media (tape) typically last between 10 and 50 years. Pressed discs, such as you might buy as a game or a piece of software, may last “generations” if preserved well. But recordable discs can be unreadable in as little as a year, if the organic dyes used to store your data deteriorate to the point where they become unreadable. 

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A diagram of layers used by the M-Disc to store data. Credit: M-Disc

M-Disc technology, which is now supported by numerous Blu-ray and DVD burners, was created to solve this problem, too. It uses an inorganic layer as a way to preserve your data even longer—up to 1,000 years, the company claims. But each disc only holds 4.7GB, and a 50-pack (or a bit more than 200GB) costs $140. But that’s the price you’ll pay for near-permanent data storage. 


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