Data storage has come a long way from the early days of computers. Long ago we had spools of tape and punch cards. Neither were particularly efficient. Soon we left those formats for rotating disks. Over time the bits on the disks got smaller, they spun faster, and have become the defacto standard for storing data. There are downsides to disks, paramount among them being a theoretical hard-limit on how small you can make magnetized areas that can reliably hold data and are still able to be read from and written to easily. To combat all that we turned to optics.
Storing data with LIGHT!
It sounded like something out of science fiction: storing data with lasers! Eventually CDs became the norm for music and data storage, then Laserdiscs for movies. Those were phased out in favor of DVDs, and now Blu Ray discs are replacing DVDs. All of these technologies use light to read data from a disc. It’s commonplace now, but back in the day it was sci-fi!
Unfortunately, optical discs are rotational and they’re not all that small (even Sony’s ill-fated mini-disc was fairly large). Back to electronic storage! Over time we landed on the Secure Digital format and we can now store 64GB (and more) on a chip smaller than the fingernail on your pinky finger! THAT is truly astounding!
There’s only so much you can do with sdcards. What about crystals? Optical discs break down in sunlight. Magnetic discs will eventually lose their data as the ones and zeros eventually turn into “one-halfs”. SD cards are much better at preserving data — except when they don’t. The solution? Hitachi says it’s quartz crystals.
According to their press release, data stored on the crystals is retrievable for millions of years (I’d like to see them test this). They even heated a storage crystal to 1,000 degrees Celsius (that’s like a million degrees Fahrenheit, or something like that) for two hours and were still able to get the data off. Try doing that with a hard drive, Blu Ray, or even an sdcard… Spoiler alert: they’ll melt!
Data is stored on the crystal in a two-dimensional binary array, not too dissimilar from a QR Code. Right now density is an issue, it maxes out at 40MB per square inch (which puts it in the same category as compact discs). Reading the data is also a challenge, requiring a microscope and high-resolution camera to capture the image and decode its data. Also, it looks like this is a read-only technology — sorry, no erasing data, except by throwing it into the heart of Mount Doom.
In the future I can see the technology configured such that data is readable directly by a laser (like discs are today), and data will be able to be read at multiple light frequencies (red, white, green, blue, etc.) to increase the storage density.
It’s not all that practical today, but someday in the not-too-distant future we’ll all be storing data on isolinear chips and rods, just like they do in Star Trek. We’re already carrying around “communicators”, P.A.D.D.s, and tricorders (we call them smartphones and tablets), so perhaps “isolinear” storage isn’t as “science-fiction” as we might have otherwise thought.
Who’s voting for phasers and transporters next?