Nanotech memory chip lasts a billion years

Humans might evolve to look like this, and still be able to watch your YouTube video of a cat smoking a pipe
Humans might evolve to look like this, and still be able to watch your YouTube video of a cat smoking a pipe

Worried about your DVDs decaying, USB keys malfunctioning and hard drives failing, losing your holiday snaps or World of Warcraft characters forever?

For data you really can't afford to lose, you might consider a new nanotechnology memory module created by researchers at the US Department of Energy and the University of California, that they say could preserve data for a billion years.

"We've developed a new mechanism for digital memory storage that consists of a crystalline iron nanoparticle shuttle enclosed within the hollow of a multiwalled carbon nanotube," said lead physicist Alex Zettl.

Plug and play

In English, that apparently means a memory device that features both ultra-high density and ultra-long lifetimes, and that can be written to and read from using the conventional voltages already used in today's gadgets.

Zettl and pals' programmable memory system is based on an iron nanoparticle, approximately 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, that can be shuttled back and forth inside a hollow carbon nanotube with remarkable precision by a low current.

The shuttle's position inside the tube can be read directly via a simple measurement of electrical resistance, allowing the shuttle to function as a nonvolatile memory element with potentially hundreds of binary memory states.

Data to last longer than human species

"The shuttle memory has application for archival data storage with information density as high as one trillion bits per square inch and thermodynamic stability in excess of one billion years," Zettl said. "Furthermore, as the system is naturally hermetically sealed - it provides its own protection against environmental contamination."

Zettl notes that the stone carvings in the Egyptian temple of Karnak, which store approximately two bits of data per square inch, can still be read after nearly 4,000 years, while a modern DVD, capable of storing 100 billion bits of data per square inch, will probably remain readable for no more than 30 years.

"Interestingly," said Zettl, "the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086 and written on vellum, has survived over 900 years, while the 1986 BBC Domesday Project, a multimedia survey marking the 900th anniversary of the original Book, required migration from the original high-density laserdiscs within two decades because of media failure."

Zettl believes the technology could be on the market within the next two years.