Million Year Storage Discs? Not Likely

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university-of-twente

Within the past week, I have seen two stories in the news about super long life optical discs. One source referred to them as “million year storage disks” while the other quoted the stretch goal of a “1 billion year” disc.

Both articles are referring to a research paper which was recently published by the University of Twente (in the Netherlands). In the paper, doctoral student and researcher Jeroen de Vries explains an experiment he has done which could theoretically result in a disc with a million-year lifespan.

This post is not an attack on Jeroen’s work – it looks solid. My issue is with the idea that any physical storage medium – particularly an electronic one – would be usable one million years from now. That is just absurd.

One million years ago, the Earth hard formed, cooled, and was covered by lots of glaciers in a time period that scientists now call the Pleistocene era. One million years ago, no one could have predicted that one day we would have storage discs, computers, or the concept of electricity.

Based on that, how can we assume that one million years from now, someone will insert a disc into a spinning drive to retrieve some information? Will computers still be around then? Remember that an all-electronic computer did not exist just a hundred years ago.

I would think that in the year 1,002,013 A.D. the idea of discs (and every other form of storage currently known) will be ancient history – the same way we think of cave paintings or Egyptian hieroglyphics as a means of communication.

Basically, the world has changed so dramatically in the past million years that I think it would be impossible to accurately predict what might happen a million years from now. I can say with great certainty that no one will be using optical discs, that’s for sure!

But anyway, let’s move on and talk about these discs.

tungsten-disc

A regular old CD-R disc is made of organic dye material in a polycarbonate disc, while a DVD-R has the dye layer sandwiched between two thin pieces of polycarbonate which are glued together. Researchers are able to estimate the lifespan of these discs by conducting Accelerated Life Testing in a laboratory.

An Accelerated Life Test (ALT) can calculate the longevity of a disc by plugging the rate of decay during the test into the Arrhenius Model. Based on the results of his test, Jeroen de Vries calculated that a new type of storage disc could last up to 1 million years.

How did he do it? Jeroen thought to replace the organic dye with a tungsten wafer and the polycarbonate with silicon nitride. Based on this highly stable and durable combination, these discs should be able to endure some very tough conditions.

At this point, the discs are still a laboratoy project. There are no plans to make a commercial version yet. Another issue is the center hole – did you notice that these discs haven’t got one?

The idea of long-term storage is an important one, and I’m sure that five or even ten years from now, people will still be using discs. But a million years from now? No way.

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