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5D Storage: Everything You Need to Know About Memory Crystals

By: Ernest Sampera on October 24, 2019

In a 1986 interview, legendary science fiction author William Gibson described the disappointment he felt after finally purchasing his first personal computer:

“I found out there's a drive mechanism inside—this little thing that spins around. I'd been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player.”

Computing technology has come a long way since the 1980s, but the basic mechanics of data storage haven’t changed significantly since then. It’s only been in the last decade that solid-state drives have become affordable and commonplace, and many archival storage systems still use tape drive technology.

With the development of 5D crystal data storage, however, computing technology may finally be catching up to the imagination (and expectations) of science fiction writers like Gibson. In fact, tech journalists have already taken to referring to these storage devices as “Superman memory crystals,” a reference to alien memory crystals featured in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. While the term is certainly amusing, the technology behind 5D optical data storage is anything but a joke.

What is 5D Data Storage?

First developed in 2013, five-dimensional (5D) data storage technology encodes data into a small disc made of fused quartz. Although early versions of these discs could only store a few hundred KB of data, newer discs can hold 360 TB of data. Only three inches wide, the glass discs are much smaller than DVD and Blu-ray discs, which only hold about 4.7 GB and up to 128 GB respectively.

More importantly than storage capacity, however, is durability. Hard disk drives, flash storage, and tape drives all deteriorate over time and are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature. Since 5D memory crystals are made of glass, they are incredibly stable. Not only can these nanostructured glass discs withstand temperatures up to 1,000°C without losing any data, but researchers estimate that they can survive an astonishing 13.8 billion years at room temperature.

How Does 5D Data Storage Work?

Data is encoded into the crystal using femtosecond laser writing, which creates microscopic “nanogratings” within the glass. These gratings alter the way light travels through the glass, providing five distinct dimensions in which data can be read. To understand how this works, it’s worth exploring how data is read from conventional storage devices.

Fundamentally, computer data is expressed in a series of ones and zeros. When it comes to storing that data physically, a device only needs to be able to read data in two dimensions. A CD, for example, is etched with a series of ridges that are then read by a laser. When the light hits one of these ridges, it reflects back to a sensor and is recorded as a one. If the light isn’t reflected, it’s recorded as a zero. These discs are considered to have two dimensions of data. Multilayered DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, however, have a third dimension of data because they have additional layers of etchings on their surface, which allows them to store far more data.

The nanogratings of 5D memory crystals allow them to store data on two additional dimensions. By altering the polarization and intensity of the light during the recording process, data can be added on a fourth dimension (slow axis orientation) and a fifth dimension (strength of retardance). Combining these two optical dimensions with the three conventional spatial coordinates allows these glass discs to hold significantly more data.

More importantly, since the nanogratings are contained inside the glass, the crystals are much more resistant to damage than traditional physical storage. A conventional DVD is not only vulnerable to warping in high temperatures, but any damage to the surface of the disc could make it impossible for a drive to read the data encoded upon it. 5D memory crystals are made of fused quartz glass, which is incredibly durable, both structurally and chemically. They can withstand fire and direct impact up to half a ton without being damaged.

Pros and Cons of Crystal Data Storage

The benefits of these so-called Superman memory crystals are easy to identify. They’re capable of storing an incredible amount of data in a very small medium, which makes them an ideal solution for archival storage and data backup. Typical storage concerns like temperature, humidity, and dust are irrelevant due to the durable nature of 5D discs. In theory, reading devices could be quite small as well.

There are questions, however, about whether or not glass data storage technology will support multiple writing processes. While this might not present a serious problem in terms of archival storage, it does limit the technology for widespread use. If data can only be written to a memory crystal once, using less than the available 360 TB could amount to a lot of wasted space. That wasted space could be a serious factor depending upon the cost of the technology. Like any new medium, 5D storage will likely be quite expensive when it becomes widely available. It also remains to be seen what hardware will be required to read and write data to a 5D disc.

While there are still many questions to be answered about 5D storage, the future of Superman memory crystals is certainly exciting for organizations looking for reliable data backup solutions. With their ability to store hundreds of terabytes of data in such small, durable form, 5D optical data storage discs represent an innovative new development that will be sure to make headlines over the next few years.

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