Fused-quartz optical memory is the new long-term data storage reality.  The technology, developed by scientists and led by Dr. Jingyu Zhang from University of Southampton in the U.K., has garnered the nickname “superman memory crystal”, with the potential to hold data for millions of years, potentially outlasting the human race; did we mention it has a resistance of up to 1000 degrees Celsius i.e. 1832 degrees Fahrenheit?

The data is recorded using femtosecond (i.e. super-fast) laser writing, at an inconceivable quadrillion pulses/second.  The photon bullets (100 at a time) are issued from the laser, which shift the structure of atoms in the silica, creating nanostructures.  This rearranging changes the way light travels through the quartz, modifying the polarization of light; the data can then be read by an optical microscope and polarizer, similar to Polaroid sunglasses.  Its revolutionizing potential lies in the nano-scale of its encoding – at order of magnitude, a piece of this glass could hold up to 350 terabytes of data, 100 times more information than current disc drives.   Dr. Zhang defines the target data density as 1 byte per spot in about a 5 cubic micron volume.

The Physical Optics group from the University’s Optoelectronics Research Center (ORC) successfully coded a 300kb digital copy of a text file in 5D (3 layers of nanostructure in time and space).  Dr. Zhang noted that the final disc will have hundreds of layers; a disc with the same thickness (1.2 mm) as a CD would have 400 layers.  The research team presented their findings in a paper, 5D Data Storage by Ultrafast Laser Nanostructuring in Glass, at the photonics industry’s Conference on Lasers and ElectropOptics (CLEO’13) in San Jose, Brazil.

Of interest is an earlier prototype of the slivered glass, spearheaded by the electronic company Hitachi in conjunction with Kyoto University’s Kyotaka in 2012.   Back in September, Hitachi speculated that the technology would be commercially available by 2015.  For the time being, it seems Dr. Zhang’s research team has leapt to the forefront of this burgeoning industry. The research group notes the technology’s obvious utility for big organizations with huge archives, like museums; the team is currently looking for industry partners with whom to commercialize.

Clearly, the technology is intriguing in its implications for “semi-permanent” data storage, with the potential to withstand extreme environments.  Holding its own when exposed to water, magnetism, and high temperatures, the glass could rest at the bottom of the ocean, travel to extreme reaches of space, or even be dipped in molten lava, and still be retrieved and read (bearing in mind that it is glass, and could technically be smashed into bits).  Some futurists have more far-reaching notions for the use of this technology, such as the capability for the development of nearly indestructible personal computing devices (PCD’s) that accompany human beings wherever they go within a variety of platforms, allowing us to have a virtually uninterrupted flow of knowledge, data, and controls.  The possibilities are certainly waiting to be tapped across the tech industry.  One thing is for sure – the technology with superhero-like capabilities isn’t disappearing from the public eye anytime soon.


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