A team from the University of Twente has devised a hard drive that can store data long after the human race has ceased to exist. The team, led by Jeroen de Vries from the university’s MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, have set themselves the goal of ensuring that any information that is stored never gets lost and – if necessary – can last for as long as one million years.
Until now, humanity’s methods of storing information have been limited to books and, more recently, digital hard drives, but the Twente team has long maintained that the ability to store data for a long period of time has always been limited.
The problem with current hard disk drives is that their magnetic energy barrier is so low that the information is lost after a period of time. While it may not be widely advertised, CDs, DVDs and hard drives all have a limited life span.
“(Imagine) a disaster has devastated the earth and society must rebuild the world. Another scenario could be that we create a kind of legacy for future intelligent life that evolves on Earth or comes from other worlds. You must then think about archival storage of between one million and one billion years,” said De Vries.
De Vries and his team have developed an optical information carrier that can store information for extremely long periods of time. Each bit is written using etching techniques, while the information carrier is a wafer consisting of tungsten encapsulated by silicon nitride.
The team chose Tungsten because it can withstand extreme temperatures. On top of that, a QR code is etched into the tungsten and is protected by the nitride. Each pixel of the large QR code contains a smaller QR code that in turn stores different information.
“In principle, we can store everything on the disc that we believe is worthwhile saving: for example, a digital image of the Mona Lisa. In this study we tested a digital copy of the chapter about this medium from my thesis”, says De Vries. “According to the Arrhenius model, the medium should keep working for at least 1 million years if it is heated to a temperature of 473 Kelvin (200 degrees Celsius) and kept in the oven for an hour.”
“A follow-up study would be to investigate whether the data carrier also can withstand higher temperatures, for example during a house fire. But if we can find a place that is very stable, such as a nuclear storage facility, then the disc itself and the data that is on it should be able to endure millions of years. ”
Images via Knight Foundation/University of Twente