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Researchers used lasers and glass to store tons of data

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Peter Kazansky has been working on something called five-dimensional data storage, or 5D, since 2014, and in October he and his research partners announced they had cracked it: a new way to store large amounts of data. on a CD-sized disc, using a format that could boil, cook, flood, or demagnetize without degrading.

In 2014, Kazansky was part of a team that won a Guinness World Record for creating the most durable storage medium. This creation, a glass disc with a lifespan of 13.8 billion years and a capacity of 360 terabytes, was designed to ensure that our data can be passed on to generations after us.

“It was the first demonstration,” said Kazansky, professor at the Center for Optoelectronics Research at the University of Southampton. “Now we move on to practice. “

The latest iteration of his work is a disk with a capacity of 500 terabytes. For context, in 2012, the Library of Congress had over 3,000 terabytes of data. Thus, 16% of the Library of Congress holdings could be housed on this single disk. This means that with just a few of these discs, the entire holdings of the Library could be preserved.

Why is this important?

As Avi Greengart, chairman and senior analyst at research firm Techsponential, points out, the world is experiencing a data explosion right now. “This means the industry needs more super high capacity storage mechanisms with fast read and write times and improved longevity,” he says.

What we currently use to store data is not capable of such longevity. These are magnetic tapes, like with an old VHS tape or cassette tape, and hard drives, which are common data storage media for places like museums and archives. But these hard drives and cassettes can only last a certain time. Kazansky’s discovery could be a long-term solution to what could possibly be one of civilization’s biggest problems.

“Information stored on CDs or DVDs can last maybe 10 years,” Kazansky explains. (This may vary.) “With magnetic tape it can last 15 years, and with hard drives maybe five years. But with this new super-fast laser writing method, we can archive things indefinitely. In addition, files kept on floppy disks or music stored on cassettes can eventually become inaccessible, as the tools used to read these media become antiques and fall completely out of use.

Due to concerns about data degradation over time, data stored in digital formats must be migrated every few years. This is a long and expensive process that Kazansky is familiar with, as he and his team have spent years working with the Library of Congress to resolve this issue.

“If we are successful, there will be no need to migrate the data,” he says. “It will solve this problem. “

In fact, we could be living in what some are calling a dark digital age. It is the idea that we do not leave a sufficiently lasting record of our lives for future generations, because the file formats, software and hardware we use to save our data are not designed to last for the long term.

“We may know more about older generations with their stone carvings than future generations will know about us,” says Kazansky, “because all of our archival storage is hosted digitally, in places where it is held. will degrade for sure. “

Cave designs carved in stone are much more durable than magnetic tapes or hard drives. It’s a big problem. It is also the one for which Kazansky has spent years thinking about solutions.

The technique involves using a laser “like a chisel” on glass. YUHAO LEI AND PETER G. KAZANSKY, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON

How does the Kazansky method work?

The ancients used stone and hammers to carve paintings in caves, physically changing the properties of materials with tools. Kazansky’s project follows similar principles.

“With the laser beams that we use, we also cut,” he says. “We also physically use a laser beam like a scissor. Using this laser beam, Kazansky creates small cavities in the glass, creating a very stable material that would survive temperatures of 2,000 degrees.

Hard drives and magnetic tapes, the current industry standard for backing up digital data, do not store information with physical changes. Information is stored in the form of changing magnetic properties, and heating these forms of storage to 2,000 degrees would easily destroy it.

Traditional hard drives hold data on spinning platters of magnetic media and can last anywhere from three to five years (although actual usage varies, of course), but solid-state drives are more reliable, storing memory on chips and last about double the time. Unlike hard drives, solid state drives have no moving parts and can withstand drops better.

But Kazansky’s method uses special lasers that produce very intense pulses, creating a strong electric field that produces a lightning-like breakdown. Because these pulses are so short, this flash can be very precise, producing micro-explosions that create small cavities in the glass, which can be precisely shaped and designed to last.

What are his limits ?

The main limitation is the speed at which lasers can burn terabytes of data. Scientists have dramatically improved this speed in recent years, but our current speeds are around one megabyte per second, which means it could take decades to write 500 terabytes of data.

Finding out how to speed this up is Kazansky’s next challenge. But in the meantime, there’s one industry he can help right now, using what he’s already created: Hollywood.

The film industry has over 100 years of ancient film archives, and all of these archives need to be migrated every three to five years to avoid the possibility of data degrading. But in 2019, in partnership with Microsoft and Warner Brothers, Kazansky created a small piece of glass that stored the 1978 Superman movie.

It was a boon for the film industry, which is always looking for new ways to preserve its archival assets, and it was a victory for archivists, who warn the public about the dangers of an age dark digital for years.

But Kazansky is looking beyond Hollywood. “Now we can read a gigabyte per hour, which means that in a matter of hours we can record a person’s DNA,” he says. “And if in 10,000 years they find our crystals with DNA, maybe they can rebuild a person.”

And although at present most of Kazansky’s work remains in his laboratory at the University of Southampton, one of his crystals is aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket. This creation, known as the Solar Library, contains the entire Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Foundation trilogy.

“It’s all a bit futuristic,” Kazansky admits. “But there is a possibility.”

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