Will digital data outlive the human race?

Scientists store masses of data on glass shard

Scientists at the University of Southampton have discovered how lasers can be used to store and retrieve vast amounts of data with a shard of glass.

The scientists claim that a piece of glass could be used to store 360 terabytes of data.

Professor Jingyu Zhang, who led from the University of Southampton, said: "We are developing a very stable and safe form of portable memory using glass, which could be highly useful for organisations with big archives."

The scientists were able to store and retrieve the data with a femtosecond laser.

The laser emits short and powerful pulses of light that encode data to three layers of nanostructured dots within the glass, only five micrometers apart.

The researchers claim the femtosecond laser writes data in 5D, because it also includes its size and orientation, in addition to the three-dimensional position of the nanostructures.

The self-assembled nanostructures change the way light travels through glass, while also adjusting its polarisation. This makes it possible to read the light back with a combination of an optical microscope and a polariser, similar to that found in Polaroid sunglasses.The scientists say that because the glass is stable and heat resistant up to 1,000C, it could also be used to ensure data is kept safe for long periods of time.

"At the moment companies have to back up their archives every five to ten years because hard-drive memory has a relatively short lifespan," said Zhang. "Museums who want to preserve information or places like the national archives where they have huge numbers of documents, would really benefit."

The scientists had already discovered how to store the equivalent of a Blu-ray disc - up to 25GB of data - on a piece of glass but this breakthrough allows them to store more than seven times that.

Professor Peter Kazansky, supervisor of the Optoelectronics Research Centre at Southampton University, added: "It is thrilling to think that we have created the first document which will likely survive the human race.

"This technology can secure the last evidence of civilisation: all we've learnt will not be forgotten."

The team from the Physical Optics Group presented their paper, "5D Data Storage by Ultrafast Laser Nanostructuring in Glass", at the Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics in San Jose and are now looking for people that can help commercialise the technology.

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