Science and Technology Spotlights: Alternative storage technologies

Why it matters

Current technologies are energy-intensive and may not meet the exponentially growing demand for data storage. Without alternatives – such as synthetic DNA or glass – businesses, governments and individuals could lose billions of gigabytes of data over the next decade. However, the high cost and slow recording speeds of these technologies pose challenges to their wider use.

The technology

What is? Alternative storage technologies – such as synthetic DNA and engraved glass – are being developed to meet growing demand. Current storage media (such as magnetic tapes, DVDs, and hard drives) are probably insufficient to meet the emerging global storage needs, which are currently estimated at about 97 trillion gigabytes. Demand is expected to double by 2025.

Plastic and magnetic materials in current storage degrade over time and technologies become obsolete from newer technologies, requiring replacement every 3 years. In addition, researchers estimate that by 2040, 2.4 billion kilograms of silicon will be needed from waffles – a high-purity component of computer chips and storage devices – to store global data. However, the projected supply is estimated at only 1% of demand. In addition, current storage systems require large, energy-intensive equipment to operate and slow degradation of storage media. Data centers have a significant impact on the environment – reportedly consuming about 2 percent of global electricity by January 2020 and potentially reaching 8 percent by 2030.

How it works? Synthetic DNA and glass data storage have a greater storage capacity and, when stored properly, are more durable than current technologies.

In nature, DNA stores information from the beginning of life. The same coding system can be used to store digital information in an artificial DNA strand – created in a laboratory, not by a biological organism. To read the data, an established technology known as sequencing can decode DNA. DNA can contain over 11 trillion gigabytes in cubic inches of material.

Figure 1. Synthetic DNA data recording and reading process. The letters A, C, G and T are the components of the genetic code.

Data can also be stored in quartz glass using a fast and accurate laser, similar to the one used for vision correction surgery. The laser makes engravings that represent digitally coded ones and zeros. This method is called 5D because it uses five unique etching attributes. Three of the attributes refer to the locations of the engravings on the glass, equivalent to the X, Y and Z coordinates of the 3D graphic. DVD storage uses a similar system, but glass storage has a larger capacity, as the laser creates multiple layers of data using two additional attributes – the size and orientation of the engravings (see Figure 2).

To read the data from the glass, a device illuminates polarized laser light on each engraving, revealing its five attributes. The camera captures these changes, which the computer decodes in its original digital form. Glass data storage can store hundreds of millions of gigabytes per cubic inch.

Figure 2. Glass data storage uses a laser to record data and polarized light to read it.

How mature is it? As of April 2022, both technologies are still under development and neither is commercially available. Researchers have successfully used them to store data, and some speculate that they may reach commercialization before 2030.

Researchers have successfully stored about 200 megabytes of various forms of data in synthetic DNA, including a music video and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, translated into more than 100 languages. Glass storage is used to store 5 gigabytes of text data in about 1 inch square glass. Based on this capacity, researchers estimate that a CD-sized glass disk can hold 500 terabytes of data.

Researchers are exploring the possibilities and limitations of each technology. For example, synthetic DNA can store large amounts of data in very small volumes, reducing the size of storage facilities, but currently costs about $ 3,500 per megabyte – millions of times more than silicon-based storage. In addition, the need for this technology from very cold conditions significantly increases its cost. Finally, the storage of synthetic DNA data is prone to writing and reading errors, and researchers are working on correction codes and other methods to reduce errors.

The glass can also store large amounts of data (see Fig. 3). However, the data write speed is very slow, about 200 kilobytes per second. By comparison, a DVD has a write speed of up to 21 megabytes per second – more than 100 times faster. Glass also poses potential security issues. According to one scientist, some data will remain in the glass unless it is melted or crushed into powder.

Figure 3. Potential storage capacity by media type (bytes per cubic inch).

Due to these current limitations, both technologies may be best suited for storing archived data rather than everyday applications.

Some federal agencies and companies are interested in developing these technologies. For example, the Advanced Intelligence Research Project launches the Molecular Information Storage Program, which aims to use the storage of synthetic DNA as a low-resource mechanism to meet the intelligence storage needs of the intelligence community. In addition, at least one large technology company has a project to develop glass storage as a cost-effective way to meet long-term storage requirements.

Opportunities

  • Less resource intensive. The use of synthetic DNA and glass for data storage can increase storage capacity while reducing the need for some raw materials. This could also lead to smaller or consolidated storage facilities that could reduce energy consumption – even with the additional cold storage requirements for synthetic DNA due to its ability to store data tightly.
  • Endurance. Data stored in synthetic DNA can last for thousands of years if stored at very low temperatures. Data stored in glass can last for billions of years without deteriorating, even under severe conditions.

Challenges

  • Activating technologies. Synthetic DNA requires specially designed coding schemes and operating systems, for example to reduce errors in writing and reading data.
  • Expenses. Synthetic DNA currently costs millions of times more than storing hard disk space. Some researchers suggest that engineering advances in DNA synthesis are needed to reduce costs. Glass itself is cheap, but components such as lasers and cameras to record and read data are expensive initial costs.
  • Speed. Glass storage can be limited to archiving data that does not need frequent rewriting due to its very slow write speed.

Political context and issues

  • What research and development could be undertaken to make these alternative storage technologies more sustainable and accessible?
  • What are the considerations for designing future data centers that could use these alternative storage technologies?

Contact Brian Botwell at 202-512-6888 or [email protected] for more information.

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