Crystal memory storage: Truly permanent data

Have you ever had a hard drive fail on your computer? It would be no big deal unless you neglected to keep a duplicate set of your important data. If we take data storage to a higher level of concern, then an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) haunts our dreams. An EMP could destroy all stored data it reaches. So, the question arises: How can we protect valuable data?  One of the answers is crystal memory storage.  

Crystal memory storage technology is not a science fiction concept. It is a reality brought to life in the laboratories of optoelectronics research centers like the one at the University of Southampton. Their research produced crystal storage discs that each hold up to 360 terabytes of data and remain stable at up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. The excellent news is that a billion years from now, your data is still intact regardless of how many EMPs occurred.

The disc contains nanostructures fused into quartz glass. Data is encoded in the nanostructures using femtosecond laser writing. A femtosecond is one-quadrillionth of a second (1 femtosecond = 10−15 seconds). A femtosecond is to a second as a second is to 31.7 million years. You get the point that the device is a very fast laser writer.

Five Dimensions

Researchers refer to the data recorded in crystal memory storage as 5D or five-dimensional. The five dimensions of the nanostructures include the usual three positional dimensions of X, Y, and Z, thus denoting its spatial position. The last two dimensions relate to how light travels through the quartz nanostructures. The fourth dimension is the orientation of the slow axis of light travel, and the fifth dimension measures how much the nanostructure retards or slows the travel of light passing through it.

Reading back the data recorded in crystal memory involves firing another laser pulse into the nanostructure and measuring the polarization of the light. The technology holds great promise, but it is not ready yet for purchase and installation in your home computer.

Why do we want billion-year-old data?

The question is a fair one. Why do I care if my data last a billion years? But let’s think in smaller terms. Now, hard drives last ten years or so. Solid-state memory storage lasts longer, but not a lifetime. EMPs destroy both of them. There is no question that ensuring data integrity for a lifetime is a pain in the ass. Crystal memory storage eases that pain.

The bigger picture, however, really involves companies and governments. They both hold responsibilities for preserving data related to their operations.  Whether those operations involve financial records or national security is irrelevant, since they both require long term storage. Crystal memory storage is a possible solution and thus is a technology of value to our society. My money is on continued development until we can each have access to permanent storage.

Who knows, maybe a billion years from now another civilization will review our records to learn from our many mistakes.


Researchers develop ‘Superman memory crystal’ that could store 360TB of data forever (By Jamie Lendino; ExtremeTech) – https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/223144-researchers-develop-superman-memory-crystal-that-could-store-360tb-of-data Also:

This small quartz disc can store 360TB of data forever (By Tibi Puiu; ZME Science) – https://www.zmescience.com/research/technology/quartz-disk-5d-storage-52543/ Also:

Quartz Coin Can Hold 360 TB Of Data For Billions Of Years (By Trevor Nace; Forbes) – https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2016/03/20/quartz-coin-hold-360-tb-data-billions-years/#3016674f6662 Also:

Feature Image: Quartz, Tibet (Modified) – By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6023737

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.