Breakthrough Of The Week: Crystal Disc Capable Of Storing Data For 14 Billion Years

Nothing lasts forever, but this comes close.

Time has a way of erasing information. Chiselled rocks erode, paper deteriorates, and film becomes damaged. But thanks to a small crystal disc, scientists may have found a way to preserve data longer than ever before.

Scientists from the University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre announced the creation of a crystal disc that can hold 360 terabytes of data for a staggering 13.8 billion years, roughly the age of the Universe.

There are many components involved in making this amazing piece of technology, and it all starts with the nanostructure of the glass. Every atom of the quartz is arranged in a specific way, making it perfectly situated to receive data from a highly sophisticated laser.

To say that information is put on the disc lightning-fast would be one massive understatement. 

In one femtosecond (1/1,000,000,000,000,000 of a second. That's 15 zeroes!), the laser is able to blast an entire document onto three layers of the quartz, with each entry separated by only five micrometers (μm). For comparison, a single E. coli bacterium is about 2 μm. 

The information is stored five dimensionally, as the length, width, height, size, and orientation of the data all factor into how it can be read. Polarization of light through the disc alters how it can be perceived, which is another reflection of its incredible nanostructure.

It takes one heck of a powerful microscope to read it, but the information is there. At room temperature, the data should theoretically be preserved for nearly 14 billion years, but it can also withstand temperatures up to 1000°C without altering the data.

The scientists have begun using these discs to store certain historical documents, like the Magna CartaKing James Bible, Isaac Newton's Optiks, and the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights

"It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations," researcher Peter Kazansky said in a news release. "This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilisation: all we've learnt will not be forgotten."

Moving forward, the researchers are hoping to receive funding in order to make this technology cheaper and receive more widespread use.

This disc may last 14 billion years, but scientists predict that the Universe likely only has another 5 billion years in it. That means that this little clear puck is actually capable of holding data until the end of time, which is pretty amazing.

Cover image: Jamie Condliffe/University of Southampton