Surprises in Storage — How Your Future Hard Drive May Be DNA, Ceramic, or Even Glass

When it comes to technology, the human mind knows no boundaries when it comes to creative solutions to traditional problems.

Storing data is no different, and over time, many different solutions have been engineered to pack more and more data in smaller and more portable items.

Today’s technology is advancing, and now our choices range from hard drives to USB sticks — having said goodbye to CD-Rs and floppy disks (remember them?).

But what about tomorrow’s world — how about ceramic, DNA, or glass hard drives?

Key Takeaways

  • Today’s technology is moving fast when it comes to finding revolutionary materials for data storage.
  • While some techniques are still in the ‘hypothetical’ stage, real progress is being made on ceramic, glass, and DNA hard drives.
  • Benefits include data integrity lasting thousands of years, durability at extreme temperatures and conditions, and less reliance on earth-mined metals.

Ceramic Data Drives

The German data storage company Cerabyte has recently announced the rolling out of a technology that employs ceramics to fabricate data drives.

Arguably, we could say this is the least “revolutionary” of these data storage techs — since the first “hard drives” of human history were clay or stone tablets. But if life is a circle, we may be approaching a complete revolution, along with a shift that can easily lead us into the yottabyte era — that’s a quadrillion gigabytes or 1,000 zettabytes.

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A ceramic hard drive isn’t exactly a device you might want to install inside your home-based PC, and that’s not the purpose of Cerabyte’s newest solution.

Ceramics layers are arranged in 50-100 atoms-thick layers to create 300µm thick sheets. Data is structured into matrices, just like QR codes, that could be read and written using a laser or a particle beam.

The rationale behind the Ceramic Nano Memory is that ceramics can last for thousands of years at temperatures ranging from -200 to 300°C and are resistant to radiation.

But durability is not its sole advantage. At 1 terabyte/cm² of areal density, ceramic storage possesses five times more density than current data storage solutions.

Since most data becomes cold after its initial use, ceramics can hold a place as an innovative solution for data centers that offer very high sustainability. Since reading and writing are laser-based, ceramics-stored data can also be read and written at gigabytes per second, so applications like artificial intelligence (AI) that require high speeds can also benefit from this technology.

What are the downsides? Besides the high cost, the most significant disadvantage is that ceramics is a write-once solution. Much like old-time CDs from the ’90s, once you write something on a drive, it can’t be changed.

DNA Storage Solutions

Nature’s oldest and reasonably most efficient way to store data is, from an evolutionary point of view, DNA.

In biological organisms, the four nucleotide bases that form DNA (ATCG) are encoded into sequences that represent information in the form of instructions to build proteins. In computer terms, they can be used to transcribe binary information representing sequences of 0 and 1 that can be converted into digital information, including text, images, and videos.

From a density standpoint, DNA has incredible capacities, reaching 2.2 petabytes per gram. To picture this in practical terms, all the data in the world could fit into a DNA hard drive about the size of a spoon.

DNA data drives are a solution from the future… or past, as they were originally envisioned back in 2012 by researchers from Harvard (PDF).

However, it’s only now that they’re becoming a real, tangible tech since Biomemory recently announced the launch of their first DNA cards.

These credit card-sized drives use synthetic DNA molecules for data storage and may prove to be revolutionary in time.

Right now, they can store just one kilobyte of text data, but the company hopes to scale up the efficiency of DNA storage with drives with a storage capacity of 100 PB.

Probably the most appealing feature of Biomemory’s DNA cards is their sustainability. Their proprietary bio-sourced writing process consumes way less electricity than current data storage technology and doesn’t require extensive use of earth metals, which damage ecosystems when mined.

The main downside? Apart from cost, which is prohibitive at best, writing DNA is not a quick process since this molecule needs to be synthesized for data to be stored.

This means that only a few hundred bytes per second could be written and that reading it requests DNA sequencing – another costly and time-intensive process.

Glass Data Drives

Also known as 5D optical data storage or Superman memory crystals, these non-Kryptonian, 100% human-made crystals can be another turning point in memory drives.

These transparent nanostructured crystals (that possess no actual “5D properties” beyond marketing hype) have very high chemical stability and do not degrade over time.

Expected to last thousands of years, they’re stable at room temperature, so they don’t need electricity (or any form of energy) to be cooled or to retain their data over time. Data is read by imaging the glass platter with polarization microscopy. Data decoding employs various methods that depend on machine learning models to decide the most efficient way to convert analog image signals into digital outputs.

Microsoft first experimented with these fused quartz data drives back in 2019, when the company wrote and read back the 1978 Superman movie on a quartz silica glass.

Project Silica, as it was called back then, employed a small glass slide that was just 7.5 x 7.5 cm and could contain 75.6 GB of data. And before you ask it, despite being made of glass, these slides keep working like a charm even if you scratch, boil, flood, demagnetize, bake, and even microwave them.

Today, Microsoft has improved its system even more, reaching storage capacities of more than 7 TB, with an estimated lifespan of up to 10,000 years for the crystals. They also designed a hypothetical library consisting of thousands of platters lined in shelves that would be accessed by robots running along them.

Although they suggest implementing these techniques in their Azureus data centers, this tech is, right now, still in its early development stages.

Other companies, such as the Global Music Vault in Svalbard, Norway, plan to use glass data drives to safeguard “musical heritage” for future generations, although this looks to be in the proof of concept stage.

The Bottom Line

Besides the storage solutions mentioned above, other data storage technologies could look promising. These include atomic scale storage, holographic storage, molecular switches, atomically precise nanoscale arrays, and other molecular engineering techniques.

However, these are all in the “hypothetical” stage right now, so it’s probably better to wait a few years to discuss them.

Only time will tell which technology will truly revolutionize the way we store data, but considering all the mediums we have moved through in the last 30 years — there were a couple of years when Zip drives were all the rage — there will likely be a few surprises in storage to come.

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Claudio Buttice

Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., is a former Pharmacy Director who worked for several large public hospitals in Southern Italy, as well as for the humanitarian NGO Emergency. He is now an accomplished book author who has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty, human rights, and science for publishers such as SAGE Publishing, Bloomsbury Publishing, and Mission Bell Media. His latest books are "Universal Health Care" (2019) and "What You Need to Know about Headaches" (2022).A data analyst and freelance journalist as well, many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, The Elephant, Digital…