"Superman memory crystal" could store hundreds of terabytes indefinitely


July 10, 2013

Researchers at the University of Southampton have created an extremely durable computer memory that can store 360 TB of data (Image: University of Southampton)

Researchers at the University of Southampton have created an extremely durable computer memory that can store 360 TB of data (Image: University of Southampton)

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Recently, there have been advances in the area of digital data storage promising outstanding data density and super-long-term data storage. A new data storage technology developed at the University of Southampton can do both. Due to its similarities to the “memory crystals” used in the Superman films, it has been dubbed the "Superman memory crystal."

Hard-drive memory has a useful lifespan of a couple of decades at best, as it is vulnerable to damage from high temperatures, moisture, strong magnetic fields and numerous kinds of mechanical failures. Because of this, companies and consumers alike are forced to upgrade their storage hardware every few years.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have created an extremely dense and durable memory that can store 360 TB of data on a single disc for an indefinite amount of time. The structure, which is made of glass, can resist temperatures up to 1,000° C (1,800° F) and would be perfect for creating portable data archives that can truly stand the test of time.

Information is written using a femtosecond laser, which fires extremely short (a femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second) and powerful bursts of light inside a dense three-dimensional nanostructured glass.

The data is stored in three layers of nanostructured dots separated by five micrometers (millionths of a meter). Each dot contains information in the form of the intensity and polarization of the laser beam. Since there are five variables – the three dimensions plus polarization and intensity – the researchers refer to this technique as "5D data storage."

The process changes the way light travels through the glass, creating polarized light that can then be read in much the same way as data in optical fibers, with an optical microscope and a polarizer.

The result is an extremely stable and high-density data storage technique that would allow 360 TB of (almost) incorruptible data to be stored on a standard sized disc. Normally, you'd need close to eighty thousand DVDs to store that amount of data.

While not as impressive as some of the other specifications, read and write speed are also somewhat boosted. "The read speed should be eight times faster compared with conventional disc storage applications, while the writing speed is limited by many factors – power of the laser, refresh rate of the spatial light modulator, number of pulses, and so on," Jinjyu Zhang, who led the research, told Gizmag.

Zhang told us that current writing speed is 12 Kbit/sec, but that this could rise to about 8 Mbit/sec using ferroelectric liquid crystals, and to several Gbit/sec using magneto-optical spatial light modulation (MOSLM). A 300 kb text file was successfully recorded and then retrieved by the researchers. Writing data isn't an irreversible process as the files can be easily erased and then new information written in its place.

"The most practical application is data storage device for storing high capacity important data," says Zhang. "The writing device will cost tens of thousands of pounds using current technology, but the reading device will be much cheaper, around a few hundreds pounds."

An open-access paper (PDF) describing the advance is available for download.

Source: University of Southampton.

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

Do I have this correct? 360 Terabytes = 3,020,000,000 Megabits 8 Mbits/s = writing time of 377,500,000 seconds... or approximately 12 years?!?

Tim Read

"Zhang told us that current writing speed is 12 Kbit/sec, but that this could rise to about 8 Mbit/sec using ferroelectric liquid crystals, and to several Gbit/sec using magneto-optical spatial light modulation (MOSLM)."

If we choose middle ground, and it can be written to at 8Mbit/sec, that means a sustained write would cater for 520 yrs of recording for 360Tbit

Sounds like an ideal application for telemetry in deep space probes sent on long round trips

On the fundamental topic of readability, this kind of technology needs to have some kind of integrated light emitting laser diode of a similar level of reliability, so that future generations can adapt an obvious I/O interface to retrieve the data. Its no good designing a 5.25 floppy disk with a 1000 year shelf life if nobody can bloody read it in 100 years.


This is really cool, but at 12Kbsec, I get a rough estimate of like 20+ million years to write 360TB of data. On the other hand gigabyte+ per sec would cut it down to 4+ hours. And of course there will be no improvements...

Robert Walther

Interesting.. Let us hope that the technology to read the data stored in this device will be preserved. Otherwise it makes no sense.

Rainer Proksch

hmm, could put most of the national library on it? wonder how a cosmic ray would affect it? could multiple write / read heads be installed on one disc? a SETI type program that uses lots of data could probably use this sort of storage. really large data bases, such as (god forbid) the gov.'s email and telephone searches could go on it. a big failure point i can see is there will probably still be mechanical parts which can fail, but if they make it "insertable" that wouldn't be a problem. glass has a hardness of about 7 and dust could contain harder minerals, which would also scratch the glass -- causing errors. glass also moves slightly over a long period of time; as shown in old glass windows. that might be a problem. this thing is very thin and glass breaks / bends a little. how about vibration?


NSA to buy a few dozen of them in 3..2..1.. In all seriousness, this kind of thing is ideal for the library of congress & general archival projects. You could, literally, store the sum total of human civilization's data for later retrieval.

Alex Angel

Glass is a state of liquid actually, changing so slowly it is mostly considered a solid.


I was expecting more.

Here is a storage device that is super-high speed, much higher density, and high write speed supporting multiple writes per write pulse made from a single crystal. Optimized for storage by using multiple acoustic waves defining specific domains to be scanned with multiple write optics. The device can be read out an entire plane at one time providing terabit per second read rates.

The basic technique can also be used to make a true 3D display or (by use of the local changes in index of refraction) be used to create a changeable and dynamic optical element.

Invented in 1980 and completely in the public domain. 33 years ago.

US 4403834


@yinfu99, notarichman

Glass isn't a liquid and doesn't shift significantly over time, (barring imperfections) contrary to urban legend. Here's one of many articles on the topic:

Nathan Holmes

@Tim Read: That is a reasonable approximation. The exact number is: 370 TBytes = 370 x 1024 x 1024 MBytes = 377,487,360 x 8 Mbits


If the human brain does indeed have a two and half petabyte, (thats a 1,000 to a power of 5), potential memory, how can I/we access this potential more quickly?

Darrell Brown

Maybe the answer to getting ai to work without a connection to the internet... I like the national library idea.

Josh Ansbridge

Note that the disc itself doesn't need to move. We are used to the traditional disc that spins in it's tray, but say the laser moves instead. The disc would be safer in this sense. Now this is just a theory, I'm not an expert on the topic. None the less this may help save computers from a recession until the laser computer or the quantum computer can be commercialized. (Note; silicon can only go so thin before quantum mechanics wants to screw with your PC)

Gaṃe Wylder
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