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Making computer data storage cheaper and easier

09 October 2012

Businesses and consumers may soon have a simple, cheaper way to store large amounts of digital data on optical discs that hold 1 to 2 terabytes of data.

Case Western Reserve University researchers have developed technology aimed at making an optical disc that holds 1 to 2 terabytes of data. The entire print collection of the Library of Congress could fit on five to ten discs; just one disc would hold the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 copies of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The discs would provide small- and medium-sized businesses an alternative to storing data on energy-wasting magnetic disks or cumbersome magnetic tapes, the researchers say. To push technology to market, the leaders of the effort have launched a company.

"A disc will be on the capacity scale of magnetic tapes used for archival data storage," said Kenneth Singer, the Ambrose Swasey professor of physics, and co-founder of the new company, Folio Photonics. "But, they'll be substantially cheaper and have one advantage: you can access data faster. You just pop the disc in your computer and you can find the data in seconds. Tapes can take minutes to wind through to locate particular data."

Since 2007, when data generated worldwide first exceeded the amount of data that could be stored, the need for cheaper, more manageable storage has only grown.

To load what is the equivalent of 50 commercially available Blu-ray discs on a single, same-size disc, the scientists use similar optical data storage technology. But, instead of packing more data on the surface – which is why Blu-ray movies are sharper than DVD's - they write data in dozens of layers; not the two or four layers used in Blu-rays.

Using technology first developed by the Centre for Layered Polymeric Systems at Case School of Engineering, Singer and Valle, in collaboration with their colleague Professor Eric Baer, make an optical film with 64 data layers.

A thick, putty-like flow of polymers is repeatedly divided and stacked, then spread into a film and rolled onto a spool. They estimate they can make a square kilometre of film in an hour.

To make the final product, the researchers cut and paste film onto the same hard plastic base DVDs and Blu-rays are built upon.

The Case Western Reserve scientists aren't the only ones pursuing terabyte-storage discs. Other companies are looking into a holographic technology, which requires two lasers to write the data and will require a whole new writer/reader. Singer says his team's solution has the advantage of lower manufacturing costs and is more compatible with current readers and writers.

The discs are aimed at storing data that isn't needed instantaneously or often, but is valuable enough to keep. Singer and Valle are specifically looking to provide an affordable option to computer centres that now regularly purge data due to the prohibitive costs of current storage technologies.

They are also trying to fill increasing needs in the fields of pathology and genomics. Pathologists are starting to store not just slides of tissues but the digital images they make, which can be manipulated to gather more information about disease or damage. With the plummeting costs of genetic sequencing, companies and institutions are generating enormous amounts of data and are seeking alternative ways to archive that data.

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