Could storing data in powder resolve our storage crisis?

If you regularly peruse this blog you’ll know that we regularly discuss society’s looming data storage crisis and the fact that a multitude of organisations are seeking a solution.

Currently, a number of potential solutions are being developed and we’ve discussed several of – such as DNA data storage, improved HDD densities, superior writing techniques etc. – on this blog. Now, there’s another alternative data storage form on the block: powder.

Yes, researchers – including experts in chemistry, biochemistry and computer science – at the University of Ghent in Belgium have developed a chemical process that has allowed them to store small amounts of data in powder form, with the process closely linked to that which is currently used to store data in DNA.

Once stored, the data can be retrieved thanks to a biochemical process, though this can only currently be achieved by linking the data to a website or app. Researchers have stated that they hope to further develop the technology so that it can be used to replace flash drives and HDDs in the hope of not just providing devices that offer larger storage capacities, but that also provides a viable alternative to media that damages the environment due to a manufacturing process that requires an extremely large amount of metals such as iron and cobalt. 

One member of the research team, Steven Martens, recently told the Telegraph: “I never imagined becoming part of an interdisciplinary research project for which I’d have to store sentences and QR codes on molecules, nor did I suspect I’d be working together with the biochemistry and informatics departments.

“The possibility of using DNA has been explored by scientists as an alternative for storing data, but practical limitations have popped up in the process. To counter these disadvantages, chemists have been trying in recent years to store data on synthetic sequence-defined macromolecules.”

We would, of course, welcome any form of data storage that positively impacts our environment but it is telling that no reports have indicated the kind of storage densities powder is capable of achieving. The level of environmental damage that is caused by the production of storage media is not insignificant but, as the total amount of data stored worldwide is currently growing at a rate of 100% every two years, our immediate concern should be the creation of devices and techniques that allow us to store more data in less space