Spotlight on Science and Technology: Alternative Data Storage Technologies

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why it matters

Current technologies consume a lot of energy and may not meet the 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 costs and slow write speeds of these technologies pose challenges to their wider use.

Technology

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

Plastic and magnetic materials in current storage degrade over time and technologies become obsolete with newer technology, requiring replacement as often as every 3 years. Additionally, researchers estimate that by 2040, 2.4 billion kilograms of wafer-grade silicon, a high-purity component of computer chips and storage devices, will be needed to store global data. Yet projected supply is estimated at only 1% of demand. Additionally, today’s data storage systems require large, power-hungry facilities to operate and slow the degradation of storage media. Data centers have a significant environmental impact: they would consume around 2% of the world’s electricity in January 2020 and could reach 8% by 2030.

How it works? Synthetic DNA and glass data storage have 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 the laboratory and 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 one cubic inch of matter.

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

Data can also be stored in quartz glass using a fast and precise laser, similar to that 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 attributes of engravings. Three of the attributes relate to the locations of the etches on the glass, which is equivalent to the X, Y, and Z coordinates of a 3D graphic. DVD storage uses a similar system, but glass storage has more capacity because the laser creates multiple layers of data using two additional attributes: size and orientation of the etches (see Fig. 2).

To read data from the glass, a device shines polarized laser light on each engraving, revealing its five attributes. A camera captures these changes, which a computer decodes into the 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 write data and polarized light to read it.

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

The researchers managed to store around 200 megabytes of various forms of data in the synthetic DNA, including a music video and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights translated into more than 100 languages. The glass storage was used to store 5 gigabytes of textual data in an approximately 1 inch square of glass. Based on this capacity, the researchers believe that a CD-sized glass disc could hold 500 terabytes of data.

Researchers explore the capabilities and limitations of each technology. For example, synthetic DNA can store a large amount of data in a very small volume, which reduces the size of data storage facilities, but currently costs around $3,500 per megabyte, millions of times more than storage on silicon. In addition, the need for this technology for very cold conditions increases its cost considerably. Finally, synthetic DNA data storage is susceptible to write and read errors, and researchers are working on correction codes and other methods to reduce errors.

Glass can also store large amounts of data (see Fig. 3). However, the data writing speed is very slow, around 200 kilobytes per second. For comparison, a DVD has a write speed of up to 21 megabytes per second, which is more than 100 times faster. Glass also presents potential safety issues. According to a scientist, some data will remain in the glass unless it is melted or ground into a powder.

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

Due to these current limitations, both technologies may be better suited for archival data storage rather than everyday applications.

Some federal agencies and companies are interested in developing these technologies. For example, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects business launched the Molecular Information Storage program, which aims to use synthetic DNA storage as a low-resource mechanism to meet the data storage needs of the intelligence community. Additionally, at least one major tech company has plans to develop glass data storage as a cost-effective way to meet long-term data storage demands.

Opportunities

  • Less resource intensive. Using synthetic DNA and glass for data storage can increase storage capacity, while reducing the need for certain raw materials. It may also result in smaller or consolidated storage facilities, which could reduce power consumption, even with the additional cold storage requirements of synthetic DNA due to its ability to densely store data.
  • Sustainability. Data stored in synthetic DNA could last for thousands of years if stored at very low temperatures. Data stored in glass could last for billions of years without degrading, even under harsh conditions.

Challenges

  • Enabling technologies. Synthetic DNA requires specially designed coding schemes and operating systems to, for example, reduce errors when writing and reading data.
  • Cost. Synthetic DNA currently costs millions of times more than hard disk storage. Some researchers suggest that technical advances in DNA synthesis are needed to reduce costs. The glass itself is cheap, but components such as lasers and cameras for writing and reading data are high upfront costs.
  • Speed. Glass storage can be limited to archiving data that often does not need to be overwritten due to its very slow write speeds.

Policy Context and Issues

  • What research and development could be pursued to make these alternative data storage technologies more durable and affordable?
  • What are the design considerations for future data centers that might be able to use these alternative data storage technologies?

For more information, contact Brian Bothwell at 202-512-6888 or [email protected]

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