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New optical disc can store information "for a billion years"


October 24, 2013

A new optical disc uses QR codes etched in tungsten to achieve extreme levels of heat resi...

A new optical disc uses QR codes etched in tungsten to achieve extreme levels of heat resistance (Image: de Vries/University of Twente)

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A researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands has developed a new optical memory device out of tungsten and silicon nitride that he says could store data safely for extremely long periods of time – up to a billion years.

Hard drives are very susceptible to external magnetic fields and mechanical failures, with a normal lifespan not much longer than 10 years; similarly CDs, DVDs and flash drives each have their own Achilles' heel.

University of Twente researcher Jeroen de Vries set out to solve this problem by designing his own data storing device. For the materials he chose tungsten, which can withstand very high temperatures, encapsulated in silicon nitride, which is highly resistant to fracture and deforms very little when exposed to high levels of heat.

The disc, de Vries claims, is so sturdy that it could be used to store important data on the human race and retain it well past its extinction, for the benefit of whoever is left (of course, that's assuming that the aliens, robots, or mutants will somehow know exactly how to decode the information on the disk in the first place).

From left to right: the QR codes after fabrication, after two hours at 613 K, and after tw...
From left to right: the QR codes after fabrication, after two hours at 613 K, and after two hours at 763 K (Image: de Vries/University of Twente)

Inside the device, information is stored by etching QR codes in tungsten – which can be easily decoded by today's smartphones. This method is very resilient because the information is still preserved even when up to seven percent of the data has been compromised. Each pixel of the code also has within it a second set of much smaller QR codes, with pixels of only a few microns in size.

To find out how long the device could retain information, de Vries relied on the Arrhenius model, which simulates extended periods of time by exposing the device to predetermined levels of heat for a set amount of time.

The researcher heated the storage device to a temperature of 200 °C (400 °F) for one hour and noted no visible degradation, which according to the model simulates one million years of usage. The device only showed some signs of degradation once it was heated to much higher temperatures, around 440 °C (820 °F) – but even then, the tungsten was not harmed and the data was still readable.

Though the mathematical model used for testing was limited to exposure to high temperatures (and, as the researcher admits, may not be entirely accurate), de Vries says that if they can find a place that is very stable to store the device, such as a nuclear storage facility, then the disc and the data it contains still has all the requisites to last for extremely long periods of time, on the order of millions of years.

The video below shows the researcher putting the device through some ... rather unusual testing.

Source: University of Twente

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino

Storage for a billion years? A bold claim indeed, given time I might have to challenge this claim!

25th October, 2013 @ 02:25 am PDT

well... so much for cleaning our web browser history...

Ștefan Pădureanu
25th October, 2013 @ 04:07 am PDT

This is great news, but the problem isn't the length of time the disc lasts, it is the hardware that can play the disc that will be obsolete dust in probably 20 years.

25th October, 2013 @ 04:42 am PDT

A billion years... Most of you are probably too young to remember when they first launched CDs, but I'll never forget the ads which featured a Labrador retriever holding a CD in his mouth. I believe they also used the word, "indestructible" in their pitch. The inventors didn't even know they'd scratch and be useless. I'm sure this will prove to have a glitch somewhere too.

I'm not telling you, I'm just sayin'...

Terri Mason
25th October, 2013 @ 06:09 am PDT

Twinkies, Cock Rouches, Computer Disks will survive.

Robert K. Tompsett
25th October, 2013 @ 09:29 am PDT

Will it survive a gamma ray burst? At what temp. does it start to lose integrity? Can it survive under water, freezing temps?

Don Duncan
25th October, 2013 @ 09:42 am PDT

Impressive in its simplicity and its ruggedness. Can an easy to clean, non-stick frying pan with thousands of recipes stored in it be far behind?

Leon Duminiak
25th October, 2013 @ 09:42 am PDT

How is data etched onto this indestructible material?

Maybe acid? Maybe you mask it and leave it out in the polluted air. Ha!

You know when you ask yourself, "Will it make a difference in 10 or 20 years?" and then ask yourself, "Will anyone care in a billion years?" Who knows? Will acid rain ruin it?

This may indeed be a worthwhile project. The future thanks you.

25th October, 2013 @ 10:11 am PDT

I use the M-Disk which should last 1000 years. The good news is that they are readable in any DVD player, that's the bad news as well as the data density is that of a DVD. They say that they are working on a BD version but again that's low density. I'm unsure about how the data density of QR codes compares.

25th October, 2013 @ 10:14 am PDT

What they didn't point out was the disc can hold 128MB of data... so finding a safe storage spot that can hold a billion+ disks becomes an issue.

25th October, 2013 @ 10:52 am PDT

Saying that there will be no way to read the a Billion years is a bit shortsighted! The existing Technology at that time will surely have the ability to recreate any present-day (ancient) device by 3D printing or Replicator; to read the stored information!

25th October, 2013 @ 11:34 am PDT

Heat tested. Not time tested. I bet my life savings it won't last more than a couple thousand years.

Gregory Gannotti
25th October, 2013 @ 11:48 am PDT

'up to' a billion years... not only is this non-committal but also untestable. I wonder how often you'd have to do test restores on a billion years worth of data :)

25th October, 2013 @ 07:56 pm PDT

It seems more like a polymer designed to pass that test, rather than what the punchlines suggest. It has silicone after all...

Andy Bots
25th October, 2013 @ 10:19 pm PDT

Yes!!! Record our present-day stuff for millions of years so that future souls (you) may spend a lifetime deciphering it!

26th October, 2013 @ 01:26 am PDT

The future is here!

Emil Hampton
26th October, 2013 @ 04:41 pm PDT

Suggesting a "billion year" storage life is an irresponsible claim/objective that would at the very least rival nuclear waste for its environmental threat! Our landfills are already full of Eight track tapes, cassette tapes and VHS and Beta tapes - why add to the problem?

Jack In Surrey
26th October, 2013 @ 11:20 pm PDT

I'd like to know how much data can be stored on each disc. It doesn't seem like very much.

Kim Holder
27th October, 2013 @ 05:02 pm PDT

A billion years? I only have one question, does anyone have any 8" Floppy Disks around.

Daniel Harbin
30th October, 2013 @ 05:49 am PDT

Such a great achievement . This is very good innovation for that who want to store there larger data for a long time period . It is made by tungsten . The large companies and governments can used them for a long time secure data storage.

Alex Capten
25th November, 2013 @ 01:36 am PST
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