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The need for information storage is exploding. Now some Harvard University researchers are taking that idea literally. They are using an extremely fast laser to trigger tiny explosions that create “microcraters” to encode data.

Physics professor Eric Mazur uses red laser pulses lasting a mere 100 femtoseconds to explode glass and other translucent materials. One femtosecond is a billionth of a millionth of a second; there are as many femtoseconds in a second as there are minutes in the age of the universe.

Mazur’s graduate student Chris Schaffer took the concept a step further, building a laser that can fire every 40 billionths of a second to create layer after layer of microcraters, much like the pits that provide storage on a CD-ROM-but with the third dimension yielding a 100-fold boost in information density. Harvard has patented this potential application of microexplosions for data storage. Other possible uses: eye surgery and optical computing, where the microblasts could carve tiny spaces required to engineer optical circuits.

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