Advances in data storage may create million-year materials

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Storage capacity may have grown but the method of saving it has not.

It's still magnetic media that can be easily magnetized, zapped, erased or subject to decay. A CD-ROM will disintegrate. A hard disk platter can be wrecked by a speck of dust. And paper burns. That's why anthropologists have to settle for reading stone carvings and painted hieroglyphics, since the library of Alexandria has been dust for millennia.

However, MIT Technology Review reports a scientist named Jeroen de Vries at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and his team have designed and built a disk capable of storing data for more than one million years without the media decaying, and they’ve performed accelerated aging tests to prove it.

Data is stored on media in 0s and 1s and there must be an energy barrier between each digit. When this barrier is breached, data becomes corrupted. de Vries and his team did calculations based on some science and math beyond most of us mere mortals and determined they would need 63 KBT (a measure of thermal energy) to make the barrier last a million years, or 70 KBT to last a billion years. “These values are well within the range of today’s technology,” de Vries said.

Building on current methods

The disk is simple in concept and not dissimilar to how things are done now. The data is stored in the pattern of lines etched into a thin metal disc, which is how it works today, then covered with a protective layer to prevent the barriers from being breached.

The metal used in etching is tungsten, which they chose because of its high melting temperature (6,191 degrees F) and low thermal expansion coefficient. The protective layer is silicon nitride, which they chose due to its high resistance to fracture and its low thermal expansion coefficient.


As a test, they made QR codes with lines of data 100nm wide. They then heated the disks at various temperatures to see how the data fared. In theory, a disk capable of surviving a million years would have to survive 1 hour at 445 degrees Kelvin (341 degrees F), a test that the new disks survived with no problems.

Still, Technology Review points out that the average house fire would destroy the disc. But its use isn't so much in terms of storing data around the house or office. It would likely be used in secured storage vaults, or maybe on deep space satellites like the Voyagers. We sent those into space in the 1970s with audio recordings on gold-pressed 33-1/3 rpm records.

This would be the key to immortalizing our civilization. With so much knowledge lost from past civilizations, we're left to guess or speculate, and hucksters like the cast of characters on "Ancient Aliens" can make up some really great fiction. In the absence of knowledge, misinformation thrives. So perhaps when archeologists dig up these discs in 10,000 years, assuming they can play them, they will know just what we were like.

And they will either laugh or cry.

This story, "Advances in data storage may create million-year materials" was originally published by ITworld.

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