Scientists Create Superman-Style Data Crystals

By Joelle Renstrom | 8 years ago

SupermanDo you remember how paradigm-shifting flash drives were when they first came out? I distinctly recall holding one for the first time and thinking, wait — you mean all of that information is on this tiny thing that plugs into my computer?

If flash drives blew your mind back in the day, you might want to sit down. Now we’ve got something even better. Data crystals. Yep. I’m talking about those nifty devices you’ve seen in Babylon 5, Star Trek, and Superman. They’re real.

Scientists at the University of Southampton and Eindhoven University of Technology have successfully recorded to and retrieved data from nanostructured glass. Information was written onto the glass in 5D — yep, that’s two more than 3D — via femtosecond laser writing, using one of the fastest and most precise cutting tools known to man. Or to Superman. The laser layers information in nanostructured dots and pulses so quickly that, even while intense, it transfers very little energy to the glass, or whatever it’s writing on, so it can potentially be used for military operations involving explosives or for surgery.

femtolaser recording

Nanostructures in fused quartz can record and store up to 360 terrabytes of data — way more than all of the flashdrives you’ve ever owned combined, or about 580,000 CDs — and withstand temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The data will remain preserved for over a million years, so it will certainly outlive us all. In fact, if humans should do something stupid (Us? Never!), like nuking ourselves into oblivion, these data crystals might be what the aliens find and subsequently use to make fun of us.

If all that’s not mind-blowing enough, let’s talk about these nanostructures. They’re self-assembled, for one thing (which isn’t the same as self-replicating, but is a step in that direction). They also modify the polarization of light, which affects the way it travels through glass, allowing it to be read by microscopes and polarizers. Anyone who’s ever bought a pair of polarizing sunglasses has some vague sense of what this is like. Those of you who haven’t should buy a pair — the world takes on new and more vibrant hues when you wear them.

The developers believe these data crystals will be particularly useful for large companies, organizations, or museums that archive huge amounts of information and want to be sure the integrity of that data is maintained. Data crystals are also particularly effective for supervillains, as they fit easily into a pocket and look really cool when held in an outstretched palm in an evil, taunting way.

B5 data crystal
I would never taunt you with information!

Group supervisor Peter Kazansky says, “It is thrilling to think that we have created the first document which will likely survive the human race. This technology can secure the last evidence of civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”

Agreed. But how much cooler would it be if they built a Fortress of Solitude comprised of these data crystals? Now that would be memorable.


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