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New Memory Could Store Data for 1 Billion Years

Scientists are working on a new memory material that's capable of storing data for... get this... more than one billion years!

Of course, we have to ask exactly why anyone would shoot for creating memory that endures such a great length of time. After all, the memory devices won't be laying around a few centuries from now like data crystals from the Fortress of Solitude, much less anything that can actually read one-billion-year-old technology. However, in this case, the focus is centered on improving what's available, not saving old tracks of K.C. and the Sunshine Band for humans inhabiting the Earth in a billion years; the unrelenting endurance is just a cool side effect.

The American Chemical Society ingeniously sums it up best: packing more digital images, music, and other data onto silicon chips in USB drives and smart phones is like squeezing more strawberries into the same size supermarket carton. The denser you pack the fruit, the quicker it spoils. The same holds true with today's memory cards, limiting the overall life expectancy to 10 to 30 years. Pack additional capacity into the same container, and the lifespan drops. The drawback is that today's industry demands more storage, or greater data densities, thus the need for a larger "container" is in demand.

Alex Zetti and his group of scientists are now nearing that goal with a new memory device that can actually store thousands of times more data than today's conventional silicon chips while providing an estimated lifespan of more than one billion years. While the idea sounds like an underlying storyline for a science-fiction movie, the discovery is far from fiction. In fact, the scientists plan to reveal their findings in the upcoming June (10) edition of ACS' Nano Letters.

In the article, the researchers report that the experimental memory devices use an iron nanoparticle--1/50,000 the width of a human hair--that is enclosed in a hollow carbon nanotube. When electricity is applied, the nanoparticle can "shuttle" back and forth without error, allowing it to record digital information and play it back like the silicon chips used today.

Currently some of today's highest-density experimental storage media can retain ultra-dense data for only a fraction of a second. As an example of today's limitations, the group refers to William the Conqueror's Doomsday Book. Surviving 900 years, the book was originally written on vellum back in 1086 AD. It was eventually converted into a digital version back in 1986, however the medium used to store the data failed within 20 years.

Still, not only does the new memory material provide a one billion year lifespan (at room temperature), it can store up to a trillions bits of information. "The memory unit can be written to and read out using two-terminal electrical leads operated at low voltages, facilitating large-scale integration, and is easily incorporated into conventional silicon processing," reads the team's article. "The nanomechanical system is naturally hermetically sealed and thus provides its own protection against environmental contamination."

The scientists said that the new memory will be able to be "played back" using conventional computer hardware. Of course, that hardware will look more like Stone Age tools in a billion years... that's if the Earth is still around to enjoy our stored masses of Family Guy videos and news articles with cheesy endings.