Data could one day be stored on molecules

Academics are frantically searching for ways to best store and retrieve the exabytes of data being produced daily. Chemistry is superseding traditional engineering routes.

Data will be stored on molecules

Billions of terabytes of data could be stored in one small flask of liquid, a group of scientists believe. The team from Brown University says soon it will be able to figure out a chemical-derived way of storing and manipulating mass-data by loading it onto molecules and then dissolving the molecules into liquids.

If the method is successful, large-scale, synthetic molecule storage in liquids could one day replace hard drives. It would be a case of the traditional engineering that we’ve always pursued for storage being replaced by chemistry in our machines and data centers.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the Brown team $4.1 million to work out how move the concept forward.

“The aim of this project is to come up with a new form of storage that is many times more compact that what we currently have,” says Brenda Rubenstein, assistant professor of chemistry at the university, in a press release.

The researchers say they’re getting there, but they need to figure a way to get beyond their current, small-sized, proof of concept of an 81-pixel black-and-white image loaded onto 25 unique molecules.

They claim that if they can encode millions of distinct data permutations onto the molecules, and then store the synthesis in liquids, massive amounts of data could be stored in a relatively small amount of liquid. It would be “dizzying quantities,” the researchers say.

They plan to use a technique called an Ugi reaction to achieve it. That’s a chemical way of getting multiple components onto one molecule. It’s currently used in pharmaceutical development, the school explains. A mass spectrometer then reads out the molecular data results.

Space-saving isn’t the only advantage to molecule-level data storage, though. One of the beauties of using liquids over traditional storage is that it’s three-dimensional, the researchers explain. That depth lends itself well to modern computations. It’s better for things such as image recognition and search algorithms. Those aren’t as traditionally two-dimensional as regular number crunching.

Not the only chemical medium being researched for data storage

Natural DNA is also a contender for mass storage in a tiny space. I wrote about it a few years ago. In those experiments the scientists put forward the longevity possibilities of the minuscule medium — DNA survived 45,000 years in a Siberian-discovered femur bone, those researchers point out.

Reliability, though, has been an issue in the DNA data storage experiments. But that may change.

Data density improvements, though, are where the scientists are headed in general. And the aforementioned synthetic molecule data storage and DNA exploration may be just the tip of the iceberg in this shift to chemistry.

Changes in methods of coding, too, could significantly diminish the amount of room needed for data. I wrote about “beyond binary” last year. That’s a four-symbol code that proponents say is much more efficient than the two-digit ones and zeroes we use today.

The students in that case want to use dyes triggered by light to achieve it. Chemistry, again, rather than engineering.

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