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Sapphire disks could communicate with future generations 10 million years from now

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July 18, 2012

A sapphire disk etched in platinum could preserve information for future generations to de...

A sapphire disk etched in platinum could preserve information for future generations to decipher 10 million years from now (Photo: Kluka)

Storing data for longer than a few years is tricky enough with rapidly advancing technology, so what are you supposed to do if you need to store data for thousands or even millions of years? That's just the problem facing nuclear waste management companies, who need a way to warn future civilizations of hazardous sites that will withstand the test of time. Luckily a recent proposal may have the solution with a sapphire disk etched in platinum that could survive longer than humanity itself.

Communicating with future generations is tricky for any number of reasons. Aside from finding a medium that will remain intact over the years, there's no way to accurately predict how people of the future will read data, what language they'll use, what technology they'll have at their disposal, or if they'll even be human by then. But when the information being preserved has to do with radioactive waste that can still be dangerous thousands of years from now, it's even more crucial to leave a warning that can be easily interpreted centuries from now.

That's why ANDRA, a French nuclear waste management agency, created a disk made of industrial sapphire that could last millions of years, thanks to the gem's exceptional toughness and resistance to scratching. The prototype was made by taking two thin, 20-cm (7.9-in) wide disks, etching one side of one disk in platinum, and then molecularly fusing them together. One disk made this way costs €25,000 (about US$30,738) and could hold up to 40,000 miniature pages of text or images. Theoretically, the sapphire should preserve the etchings so they can be viewed by any future archaeologists using a microscope. Currently the prototype has been submerged in acid to test its resilience, and ANDRA is confident the results will show the disk could survive for 10 million years.

The sapphire disk is one of many ideas currently being explored by ANDRA, which started a project to bring together material scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other specialists to explore ideas for warning future excavators about hazardous waste sites. Fortunately the team has plenty of time to form a definite solution, since the nuclear waste repositories operating now will most likely not be sealed until the 22nd century. Even with time on their side, the group still hopes to identify all possible solutions to the problem and then narrow them down by 2014 or 2015.

ANDRA's project and sapphire disk may be aimed at managing radioactive waste, but whatever idea it settles on could open the floodgates for preserving even more vital information for the far off future.

Source: Science

About the Author
Jonathan Fincher Jonathan grew up in Norway, China, and Trinidad before graduating film school and becoming an online writer covering green technology, history and design, as well as contributing to video game news sites like Filefront and 1Up. He currently resides in Texas, where his passions include video games, comics, and boring people who don't want to talk about either of those things.   All articles by Jonathan Fincher
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15 Comments

These guys need to talk to the Long Now Foundation (http://longnow.org/). They've been thinking about long term data storage for years - and their solution is human readable.

Cybes
18th July, 2012 @ 04:41 am PDT

Interesting technology, but the article doesn't consider two much more important points. 1) Rather than finding a way to warn future civilizations of hazardous nuclear sites, we need to avoid creating them in the first place, and 2) At the rate we're destroying our world, our species will not survive for thousands, let alone millions of years.

Douglas Baumwall
18th July, 2012 @ 05:10 am PDT

I wonder if ancient builders of tombs and temples went through the same process,

"must warn future generations of this awful curse!"

And I wonder if there is movie like entertainment in the future they will have magical sapphire disk etched with platinum as plot device.

!

Calvin k
18th July, 2012 @ 05:35 am PDT

Seems like cave drawings are the way to go...

Techo Naut
18th July, 2012 @ 06:28 am PDT

If you subject nuclear waste to neutron bombardment you can make it go away on a human time frame.

Slowburn
18th July, 2012 @ 07:34 am PDT

too bad we didn't have cheap access to space like a space elevator or startram, or some type of to orbit capabilities than chemical rockets, then we could just launch it (and all other non recycleable trash into the sun.

KushSmoka420
18th July, 2012 @ 07:43 am PDT

It would be silly not to consider the possibility that humans could fail to clean the mess that's already been made. Think about the big picture. If the Bible had been compiled on a similar, indelible medium, we may not have so many splits and cracks between Christians, Jews, and Muslims (since all of their holy books refer to similar ancient events).

Ali Kim
18th July, 2012 @ 08:10 am PDT

There's already a solution. Google liquid fluoride thorium reactor nuclear waste recycle.

Or watch this:

SpaceBagels
18th July, 2012 @ 12:30 pm PDT

Two possibilities :

1/ Future population is able to accurately read and understand this disc. Such a population is also probably able to detect radioactive material, and therefore doesn't need the disc.

2/ Future population is unable to accurately read and understand this disc. Such a population notices that people get sick and animals stay away from a particular area, and therefore stay away regardless of our warnings.

Either way, isn't this a completely pointless exercise as far as the intentions go?

Tony Smale
18th July, 2012 @ 03:06 pm PDT

SpaceBagels, I just spent the full two hours watching your vid. I could not turn it off. It reminds me of the idea behind "Atlas Shrugged" of nearly free power. Why in the hell, are we not using this right now? Let alone giving the research to the Chinese? This makes no sense.

kellory
18th July, 2012 @ 06:26 pm PDT

Kellory, the reason they aren't using the tech right now is because there are still several rather major obstacles in place before they can actually make it a viable tech! Videos like that tend to gloss over things like that. The problems are very technical in nature though, like having to find a material to make a pipe out of which won't corrode by the extremely caustic and hazardous materials going through it, and will also not absorb neutrons and expand and also not be brittle. Very difficult to achieve in practice!

Will Sharp
19th July, 2012 @ 03:49 am PDT

@Will Sharp

The MSRE Molten Salt Reactor in 1964 than ran for 5 years by Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) had pretty much solved this problem with the developement of Hastelloy-N, and further problems of embrittlement of the piping could be reduced by adding small amounts of niobium to the Hastelloy-N and/or varying the composition 'ratio' of the salts.

This was done more than 50 years ago and the reactor ran for 5 years. The technical and the engineering problems that came up were facing were dealt with in those 5 years, with a handful of smart people. What makes you think our technology which has been cumulatively progressing in leaps and bounds in various fields makes this any less harder in retesting and redevelopment of this reactor?

Unless people sit on their collective butts and complain and whine all day about how things can't be done then of course it can't.

China is building a prototype of LFTR right now and are claiming intelectual property rights in this technology even though it was first developed in USA, even though the documentation have been freely available for years, because people like you refuse to educate themselves all the while saying 'it can't be done'.

I really hope China will come up with a working reactor, then the USA can order them from their catalog. Serves the USA right.

As with the sapphire disk , it's a testament of a bunch of people that they have given up trying by offering a 'solution' to humanity and conveniently passing those problems onto our great great descendants. Just as people who are dismissing every possible solution and shovingg them out the window thinking someone else will do it for them instead of collectively taking our part. I feel sad for humanity.

SpaceBagels
19th July, 2012 @ 08:57 am PDT

Tony Smale and technonaut are the only users here with any comprehension of reality.

How many of you can read Old English?

nutcase
23rd July, 2012 @ 01:35 am PDT

actually, Nutcase, I read Old English. Almost as easily as American English, or British English.

kellory
26th July, 2012 @ 10:46 pm PDT

if mankind must depend on 'our glorious leaders' to solve the 'radioactive waste threat',we and our decendants are doomed!

redjeff53
11th September, 2014 @ 10:56 am PDT
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