One of the big drawbacks of data recorded by our culture is that it’s longevity relies on the robustness of the medium that it is encoded on: paper rots, magnetic sectors on hard drives fade, and the plastic and aluminum used in optical disks like DVDs eventually degrade and oxidize. The ancients had a penchant for setting things down in stone, a method of preserving information that seems to have worked quite well, but it’s a method that our culture doesn’t use very frequently. But what if we were to encode information in glass?
Researchers from the UK’s University of Southampton have developed a method of encoding a massive amount of information — 360 terabytes, in fact — into a disk of glass only one inch in diameter. As a demonstration, they have encoded the King James Bible, Isaac Newton’s book Opticks, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights into their new medium. They estimate that this new storage method will last for 13.8 billion years (the current estimated age of the universe), at temperatures up to 190ºC (374ºF), taking advantage of glass’s inherent heat and chemical resistance.
The information density that they have achieved — 360 terabytes is 2,800 times that of the largest Blu-ray — come through encoding the data in what they call "nanogratings", tiny bits of information encoded by a laser in the glass. The data density is enhanced by also encoding it in what they refer to as a 5D process, not just the 1 or 0 2D nature seen in traditional binary code. These five dimensions are changes made to one of five attributes that can be encoded into the bits, including altering their orientation, intensity, and their x, y, and z axis orientation inside the disk.
This storage method is expected to be an option that will be made available to museums and major archives, but the equipment, especially the special lasers needed to perform the encoding, is too expensive to be made available at the consumer level. They do, however, see the possibility of a scaled-down version of the format being made available to the market in the upcoming decades.
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