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Best of 2013: Million-Year Data Storage Disk Unveiled

In October, nanotechnologists designed and built a disk that can store data for a million years or more.

Back in 1956, IBM introduced the world’s first commercial computer capable of storing data on a magnetic disk drive. The IBM 305 RAMAC used fifty 24-inch discs to store up to 5 MB, an impressive feat in those days. Today, however, it’s not difficult to find hard drives that can store 1 TB of data on a single 3.5-inch disk.

But despite this huge increase in storage density and a similarly impressive improvement in power efficiency, one thing hasn’t changed. The lifetime over which data can be stored on magnetic discs is still about a decade.

That raises an interesting problem. How are we to preserve information about our civilisation on a timescale that outlasts it? In other words, what technology can reliably store information for 1 million years or more?

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Jeroen de Vries at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and a few pals. These guys have designed and built a disk capable of storing data over this timescale. And they’ve performed accelerated ageing tests which show it should be able to store data for 1 million years and possibly longer.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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