All of us who have shelves full of books, drawers full of external memories, DVDs, hard drives and boxes where one more photograph does not fit well understand the problem: storing information in the long term is an increasingly challenging headache, not to say expensive.
It does not matter if it is about the photos of the walk to the beach, the doctoral thesis or the trillions of data that a scientific investigation throws up, the question is getting worse and worse. There are around 10 trillion gigabytes of digital data on planet Earth right now, and every day, we humans produce emails, photos, tweets, and other files that add up to another 2.5 million gigabytes.
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Much of this data is stored in huge facilities known as exabyte data centers (one exabyte equals one billion gigabytes), which can be the size of several city blocks, and cost around $1 billion to build and maintain. Dollars.
Given such exponential growth, what does the future of digital storage hold? The civilizations of tomorrow, human and extraterrestrial, would surely appreciate it if we were capable of keeping records of our existence in an organized way.
Several physicists are already trying. Some of them, at Harvard University, were inspired by the glass shards in Superman’s fortress, where the hero keeps the memories of the shattered planet of him, in beautiful pieces of glass.
In 1996, in a study by The Optical Society called ‘Three-Dimensional Optical Storage Within Transparent Materials’, they showed that it should be possible to write data onto a durable material like glass. After all, glass is resistant to heat, chemicals, and mechanical stress, and can be made bulletproof.
According to the researchers, writing information onto a piece of glass is a simple process that involves aiming an intense laser at it to create a small defect with a different refractive index than the surrounding glass.
One could read the information by exposing the material to light, and examining the pattern of dots that bounce off the flaws. The idea calls for meticulously focused lasers, a technology Japanese company Hitachi is working on.
For his part, the physicist Peter Kazansky, from the University of Southampton, showed that it is possible to store information inside a quartz crystal in what he calls five “dimensions”. In volume 11 of Physical Review Letters he describes that his idea is to use not only the three spatial dimensions of quartz, but to take advantage of the effects that occur when varying the intensity and polarization of the laser.
The result, Kazansky writes, is a storage density eight times that of Hitachi’s method. A chunk the size of a fingernail, he says, could hold several teras of data, withstand 1,000°C, survive a nuclear disaster, and persist for up to 10 billion years.