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January 7, 2013

Quartz Crystallizes Long-Term Data Storage

Ian Armas Foster

Hundreds of millions of years from now, when the human race is potentially extinct or severely depleted due to war or famine, extraterrestrials may arrive on Earth, seeking to learn of our long-abandoned civilization. But rather than searching out ancient texts to answer their questions, they find our relics left behind in a cave, encoded digitally onto quartz.

The future of cheap, long-term data storage may be in DNA, where the wealth of human existence can essentially be crammed into a few grams and then plopped into a refrigerator for years. But after some joint tests carried out by Japanese electronics company Hitachi and Kyoto University’s Kiyotaka Miura, now know that the future of very long-term data storage may lie in quartz.

The quartz glass used to contain the information is reportedly a square with an area of 2 square centimeters and 2 millimeters thick. By using a femtosecond laser, the researchers created little dots in the glass which represent the binary bits that constitute digital information.

While the quartz’s storage density slightly surpasses that of CDs, the real advantage lies in the gem’s durability. Miura and Hitachi subjected the quartz to various tests, including heating it up to a thousand degrees for two hours or placing it in magnetic fields. If these layers were stacked, the density would increase significantly, aligning it more with the practical needs of research institutions.

Unlike DNA, which denatures at such high temperatures, and disks, which scramble under magnetic fields, the information was still retrievable and readable. Further, the nature of quartz makes it waterproof, and the digital layers would be embedded. As a result, the information would not be subject to erosion, leading to the extrapolation that the device would keep its form for several hundred million years.

Some, like Ethan Miller, director of the Center for Research in Intelligent Storage at the University of California, Santa Cruz, point out that quartz’s ability to withstand great temperatures does not necessarily equate with an elongated life-span. “Many quartz-based rocks from that time are now sand on our beaches—how would this quartz medium fare any differently?” Miller asked.

With that being said, quartz may end up an efficient and durable method for those with a lot of information to store in the near long-term without having to do much to protect it. Finally, if worse comes to worst, it may end up how the memory of human civilization lives on in posterity.

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