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Five-Dimensional Glass Disc Data Storage


Photographs fade, books rot, and even hard drives eventually expire.  Taking the long view, preserving humanity’s collective culture isn’t a marathon, it’s a relay – with successive generations passing on information from one slowly-failing storage medium to the next.

However, this could change.  Scientists from the University of Southampton in the UK have create a new data format that encodes information in tiny nanostructures within glass.  A standard size disc, of the new format, can store about 360 terabytes of data, with an estimated lifespan of up to 13.8 billion years even at temperatures of 190 degrees centigrade.  That’s actually about the age of the universe, and three time the age of Earth.

This is Five-Dimensional data storage, and it was first demonstrated in a 2013 research paper.  The scientists behind its development have since perfected their technique and are now looking to move the technology forward into commercialization.  “We can encode anything,” Aabid Patel, a post-graduate student involved in the research tells ‘The Verge’.  “We’re not limited to anything – just give us a file and we can print it [onto a disc].”

In order to demonstrate the format’s virtues, the team from the University of Southampton, have created copies of the King James Bible, Isaac Newton’s “Opticks” (the foundational text of the study of light and lenses), and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was presented to the UN earlier this month.  Tomorrow, 02/17/2016, a new paper will be presented at the Society for Optical Engineering Conference in San Francisco, by the team’s lead researcher, Professor Peter Kazansky.

To understand why these discs can store so much information for such a long time, it’s best to compare them to a regular Compact Disc.  Data is read from a normal CD by shining a laser at a tiny line with bumps in it.  Whenever the laser hits a bump the laser is reflected back and a (1) is recorded, when there’s no bump a (0) is recorded.

These are just two “dimensions” of information – on or off – but with them CD’s can store: music, books, images, videos, or software.  But because this bumpy line is stored on the surface of the CD, it’s vulnerable.  It can be eroded either by physical scratches and scuffs, or by exposure to oxygen, heat, and humidity.

Conversely, 5D discs house information inside the medium using tiny physical structures known as “nanogratings”.  Much like those bumpy lines on CDs, these change how light is reflected, but instead of doing so in just two dimensions (on or off), the light encodes five (five different streams of the spectrum) – hence the name.  Changes to this light can be read, obtaining pieces of information about the nonograting’s orientation, the strength of the light it refracts, and its location in space on the x, y, and z axes.  These extra dimensions are why 5D discs can store data so densely compared to regular optical discs.  A Blu-ray disc can hold up to 128GBs of data (the same as the biggest iPhone), while a 5D disc of the same size could store nearly 3,000 times that: 360 terabytes of information.

And these discs can potentially last for so long because glass is a tough material which needs a lot of heat to melt or warp, it’s also chemically stable – think about all those science experiments that use glass beakers to contain reactive materials without anything bad happening to them.  This makes the 5D discs safe up to temperatures of 1,000*C, say the researchers.

5D data storage obviously has potential as an archival format for museums and galleries, but the scientists involved believe it could also be commercialized in the not-too distant future.  “The concept and development of it is ready to go,” says Patel.  “It’s a matter of developing the technology so we can ten make it readily available for commercial purposes.”

This seems ambitious though, given the inertia that has to be overcome when introducing any new storage medium.  There are also many rival techniques being developed and theorized.  Hitachi is working on its own form of glass-based data storage, and in 2014, researchers simulated a “liquid hard drive” that would use nanoparticles suspended in a solution to store data.  At least storing data in glass discs that can outlive the Earth sounds almost practical by comparison.

“Who knows what’s going to happen thousands of years down the line, no one can predict that,” says Patel.  “But what we can guarantee is that we have the ability to store the culture, language, and essence of the human race in a simple piece of glass.  For future civilizations – or whatever else is out there.”

Read Article (James Vincent | | 02/16/2016)

For commercial use, their biggest stumbling block appears to be, the effects of Read/Write on the “nanogratings”.  On the surface, this appears to be the best practical future for data storage. (I’d buy that for a dollar)

This is another example of how technology is advancing at an exponential rate, it is very important to not only gain knowledge of technology use, but to improve one’s skill set.

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