How data can be archived 'eternally'

Forget ferrous hard drives and flash drives. 'Eternal,' glass-based memory using technology similar to Polaroid sunglasses filtering will allow digital copies to survive the human race, say researchers.

eternal lead image
University of Southampton

Glass and lasers are among the tools that researchers say can be used to store digital data for billions of years. Thirteen billion years, to be precise, if the media is kept at a globally warmed 190 degrees Celsius.

The 2013 discovery is being formally presented at a major photonics conference this week. That's SPIE, the International Society for Optical Engineering Conference.

The University of Southampton researchers behind the project are looking for industry partners, they say on their website.

Long time

Longevity like this this theoretically opens up a new dimension for humanity.

If the storage functions as it should, we no longer have to worry about our intellectual property, Facebook posts, and tomes of wisdom not surviving us, should the human race expire.

Capacious storage

The memory technology uses nanostructured glass to hold the data, the scientists say.

Their method is to use femtosecond laser writing to record five-dimensional (5-D) digital data onto that glass-based "eternal" media. A femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second.

The media holds a lot. The 300 TB/disc capacity means that any book, or indeed anyone's Twitter feed, for example, can be easily accommodated.

Even national archives or entire libraries would fit, the researchers say.

Perpetual memory

The scientists think that their technique could mean information will last forever.

"It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations," Professor Peter Kazansky, of the university, said in the article on the school's site.

'Superman memory crystal'

In 2013, when the discovery was initially made, the glass memory was compared to the "memory crystals" used in the Superman films.

An experimental demonstration in 2013 successfully embedded a 300 kilobyte text file in 5-D.

Existing tomes

More recently, the team says that it has been able to record the Magna Carta, the King James Bible, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights onto the media. That last one was the United Nations General Assembly-adopted document arising from World War II.

The data, in these cases, is embedded in fused quartz and is encoded in five-dimensions: two-dimensions for the size and orientation of the nanostructures—created through self-assembly. And a further three-dimensional position. 


Super-fast lasers creating "short and intense pulses of light" write the files. "Three layers of nanostructured dots separated by five micrometers" make up the data, according to the article.

A micrometer is a millionth of a meter.

To read the data, an optical microscope and polarizer identifies the changed way that the light travels through the glass—it does that a bit like a polarized pair of sunglasses.


And not only is the media extremely long-lasting — "virtually unlimited at room temperature," the scientists say. It's also extremely resilient. It can withstand temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, they reckon. I can't imagine the world will warm much hotter. So that's OK.

"This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization. All we've learnt will not be forgotten," Kazansky says on the website.

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