‘Superman’ Memory Crystals Could Survive Billions of Years

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 18, 2016 4:07 pm
The King James Bible encoded onto the "Superman" chip. (Credit: University of Southampton)

The King James Bible encoded onto the “Superman” chip. (Credit: University of Southampton)

Millions of years into the future, whatever life-form occupies the planet — assuming this theoretical society still dabbles in archaeology — might hail the discovery of tiny, glass discs that contain the history of their ancient forebears.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have created an “eternal” memory storage device that could preserve the story of human civilization long after we’ve departed. Their 5-dimensional data storage technology uses a combination of lasers and nanostructures to encode information in a fused-quartz glass disc. The researchers say their storage device could theoretically survive for billions of years. 

Tiny But Powerful

The chips are just one inch in diameter, but the researchers say they can encode 360 terabytes of information, or about 45 years of YouTube videos. The largest single hard drive on the market today can store roughly 16 terabytes.

Aside from its storage capacity, the chip can withstand temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and has a projected lifespan of over 13.8 billion years at room temperature — making it essentially eternal, the researchers say.

The chips, which beg allusions to Superman’s memory crystals, could someday store large databases of information, such as the entire collection of works in the Library of Congress, safely and efficiently. The researchers presented their findings Wednesday at the The International Society for Optical Engineering Conference in San Francisco.

Packing in the Data

To create the devices, the researchers blast a disc of glass with intense femtosecond laser pulses, creating nanoscale etch marks within its structure that alter the polarization of light beams. The data is stored in three layers of nanostructured dots, and each dot can change the form and intensity of the laser beam. Since there are five variables in play, the researchers refer to the technology as 5D.

When a laser is aimed at a completed chip, the pattern of light passing through the configuration of nanostructures can be read and reassembled with an optical microscope and a polarizer.  In 2013, the researchers encoded 300 kilobytes — or about a six-page PDF document — of information  using this technique as a a proof-of concept.

Additional Dimensions

The 5D data storage technique builds off prior research that used lasers to create voids in crystals to alter light and encode information. The void technique maxed out at about 50 GB of storage. Now, with the power of two additional dimensions, researchers have expanded the memory capacity of a glass storage device by a factor of 7,000. Although the technology has advanced rapidly, it still requires expensive lasers to write the data and read it — they’re looking for private investors to commercialize the technology and bring it out of the lab.

Researchers have already used their Superman chip to store important historical documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the King James Bibles, Newton’s Opticks and the Magna Carta.

Those timeless texts will be with us, or whatever comes next, for a long, long time — until the sun, as predicted, expands and engulfs this planet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: nanotechnology
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  • Rita O’Gorman

    This is good news. I have often wondered if our history would be lost. Our paper doesn’t last and we don’t carve in stone. The fly in this ointment is how will it be retrieved? Will they, whoever they will be, know how to access the information and will they have the technology to do so?

    • Lazarus

      Just think, in a few billion years some alien race might find one of our space probes that we sent out beyond our solar system. They could trace it back to us and if we’re not around maybe they will find something like this that we left behind.

    • Maia

      “Our” history? Whose history?

      • Lazarus

        I assume Rita’s statement was just a general statement about human beings. I also assume by your statement that you are looking for a reason to rant. Why?

        • Maia

          :) Calm down. Actually, it was mostly in response to the sample “chip” illustrating the article… I guess I have to use more smiley symbols?

  • Richard Parisse

    If we are living in caves in the future how will we access the data?

    • stargene

      I plan on holding mine real close to my eyeball so the cave’s
      firelight might shine thru and I can read stuff. :-)

    • bobgeezer

      We? Who’s We? Humans barely have a billion years left – barely.
      Maybe only a few hundred million before the sun toasts us to cinders. “Living in caves”? Forget “living” at all.

      • Lazarus

        If we haven’t moved off this planet by then, we deserve to toasted.

  • Kevin Dondrea

    This was in “Logan’s Run” and several other Sci-Fi movies. I think it’s Awesome!

  • Patman

    So.. If I hit it with a hammer it will break. No more data.

    • https://www.youtube.com/user/Irvau Zeqe

      Kinda works the same way with our current methods of storing data, bud.

  • Scott Pacheco

    Who’s to say that the knowledge of man won’t regress, and render these chips unreadable? In 10,000 yearssomebody possessing one of these things might think it’s some kind of trinket. Even if they suspected that that it might contain knowlege, it’s a major presumption to think they would still possess the knowledge to retrieve it?

    • Yuri Nator

      They could print a diagram which shows future generations how to decrypt the data.

      • Scott Pacheco

        That possibility requires a lot of assumptions on your part.

    • Brewster

      There is one ideology dragging human advancement back to the 7th century & it’s gaining ground.

  • non name

    what about if data get recorded on diamond discs? glass seems too easy to break…

    • thinkdunson

      i’m pretty sure they considered all the possibilities and chose the best material. maybe diamond doesn’t etch the way this material does, and maybe it doesn’t have the right optical clarity for this method.

      • non name

        what makes you assume that? what evidences you used to make your assumption?

        sorry if what I say will break your glass roof… but nothing can survive “Billions of Years”, it is pure sensationalism … and, much possible their choice is based on the most cheap material, not necessarily the most durable…

        and making an industrial diamound disk, at first place would be quite toilsome… only to later prove that their recording system is functional?…

        so, I really doubt they exhausted all possibilities for most durable material to be used as recording media

        • thinkdunson

          “best material” means a lot of things. cost could certainly have been a factor. i base my assumption on the fact that they’re there doing the science and we’re here talking about it on the internet with NO CLUE as to what they were thinking. i can only hope, and assume, they know what they’re doing.

          • non name

            I would not take their “title” of scientists as granted… there are millions of scientists who do a lot of shXt… then they say it was only an accident… or just a casual mistake…

            But, this article, itself, if you read carefully, it is not clear enough on many parts… for example, what exactly 5D means??? There is no reference detailing what it means… so, it only make things “dark”.

            The other problem I noticed… the size and the power of the machine itself, seems to be something like industrial size… big lasers, big machine… big amount of energy used…
            what is the tolerance of the machine in case of vibrations of the laser and/or the disc? it would give much errors on reading, or the machine itself needs a lot of vibration cancelation mechanisms?
            what is the transfer rate of the data? is it fast enough to be used in practice, or it would be only used to archive data, and not be retrieved often?

            it really does not seems something of practical use. How many years it would take to be available to consumer public? 10 years? 20 years? 50 years?

            you see what I mean? depending on many of these details, that seems to be omited on purpose in the article… this machine maybe dont even deserve to be discussed…

          • thinkdunson

            none of these points are valid. they do in fact explain why they call it 5D. you not understanding something does not make it suspect. and any progress is progress, even if it takes another hundred years to bring to fruition.

          • Lazarus

            You, in my opinion, have made some very valid assumptions. non name on the other hand assumes he is smarter then everyone else and therefor assumes he can deduce things that nobody else can see. You had more patience with him then I would have.

  • RSFan

    Cool. Bury these discs next to a box of Twinkies for the aliens to find. Those should still be good in 13.8 billion years too.

  • ericlipps

    What good is it to store the data on immortal media if in a thousand years the technology to read them has been long abandoned? Read any 8-inch floppy disks lately? (Those were the first, before even the 5.25-inch kind.)

  • D. Hunnel

    Yeah. All they need now is a way to focus firelight through a drop of water on a hole in a leaf as a read-out device and “future-we” are golden…
    And what happened to the understanding that “glass” actually flows over time? Maybe fused quartz doesn’t do this? Not much out there is immune to the forces of erosion AND corrosion AND cosmic rays…

  • Overburdened_Planet

    has a projected lifespan of over 13.8 billion years at room temperature

    How did the researchers come up with that number?

    It’s close to the age of the universe…

    • Pratteek Das

      That’s a theoretical term used to describe very long processes. It may be more than the age of universe but in layman terms to just give it a number you could say 13.8 billion years.. Do you know about the problem statement in statistics–> how long will it take “some number of monkeys” randomly hitting any key on a typewriter to reproduce the complete works of shakesphere. After the theoretical calculation you reach a number much greater than the age of universe. “age of universe” is usually used to discard some ideas and give a basis to compare.

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