Storing information for millions of years
Oct. 1, 2012
by Mark Ollig

Looking out the bay window to the left of my writing desk, I am seeing signs of autumn; the nearby trees bordering the street are showing off their vibrant fall colors of red, gold, and yellow leaves.

I also noticed the glass on the window needs to be cleaned.

In this week’s column, we will discover another use for glass, besides its being fashioned as a window to look through.

“The volume of data being created every day is exploding, but in terms of keeping it for later generations, we haven’t necessarily improved since the days we inscribed things on stones,” said Hitachi researcher Kazuyoshi Torii.

Glass, specifically quartz glass, has been successfully tested as a data-storage medium having the capacity to preserve the information placed inside of it almost indefinitely, without any degradation.

Technology developed by Hitachi of Japan, used a laser beam to generate digital data (binary formatted data) as dot etchings positioned inside a very thin piece of quartz glass.

This quartz glass-plate storage medium measures just two centimeters (0.8 inches) square and only two millimeters (0.08 inches) thick. It can contain four separate layers of dot etchings.

Each glass square can hold 40 megabytes worth of binary data per square inch.

The binary data stored inside the square of quartz glass was read using special data-reading software, along with an optical microscope connected to a display monitor.

The quartz glass is also highly resistant to heat and water.

The permanency of the quartz glass was tested, and it was determined it would last, according to Hitachi, for “hundreds of millions of years.”

Hitachi reported quartz glass-plate samples withstood two hours of exposure to 1,832 Fahrenheit degree heat in an accelerated aging test.

Hitachi concluded the data stored using the quartz glass would be readable for 100 million years.

While we have developed cutting-edge technologies for storing data as binary information on a variety of long-lasting materials, it is yet to be confirmed the data stored will be fully retrievable in 1,000 years, or 1 million years . . . let alone 100 million years.

Hitachi researchers believe if data is stored in a simple binary format (dots) inside the quartz glass; future civilizations should be able to read the information with an optical microscope.

To be fair to my readers, Hitachi did not disclose if they foresee optical microscopes needed to read the data would still be obtainable in the year 100002012.

According to Hitachi, quartz glass-plate technology would be a preferred method for storing “historically important items such as cultural artifacts and public documents, as well as data that individuals want to leave for posterity.”

“Initially this will be aimed at companies that have large amounts of important data to preserve, rather than individuals,” said Tomiko Kinoshita, a spokeswoman at Hitachi’s main research lab.

Just imagine . . . yours truly could store all of his treasured Bits & Bytes columns inside a small square of quartz glass – where they could still be readable in 100 million years.

This is epic. Bits & Bytes may possibly realize a future civilization of faithful readers.

Sadly, I have read a few predictions of Earth’s fate 100 million years from now, and folks, I admit, it doesn’t look very promising.

One future timeline says Earth will have been impacted by a meteorite the size of what hit us 65.5 million years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

If there is still intelligence inhabiting this planet 100 million years from now, they would most likely have in place some type of artificial protection screen surrounding the Earth. Possibly a global force field would have been designed to deflect large asteroids and meteorites away from this planet.

Speaking of storing messages in the hopes of them being retrievable in the distant future, I am reminded of when NASA launched two Voyager probes into space in 1977.

The late Carl Sagan advised NASA to include a message from Earth – in case an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization would come into possession of one of the Voyager probes.

Each Voyager contains duplicate messages: a variety of sounds, greetings spoken in many languages, and 115 images of life on Earth.

The information is etched onto a 12-inch phonographic, gold-plated copper disk (golden record), and one is attached to each Voyager probe.

Included with each golden record are the stylus and cartridge needed to play them.

A drawing on each golden record shows whatever intelligence finds it, how to retrieve the information carved onto its surface.

Each golden record is essentially a “message in a bottle” humans from Earth have tossed out into the ocean of space, with the hope that one day they will be found, and their messages seen, heard, and understood.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, we can expect to see Hitachi’s new quartz glass storage technology being brought into the marketplace by 2015.

So, let’s stay focused . . . as we look out the window towards the future of quartz glass storage.

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