New data storage system found by chance

Old photographs fade away, and old videotapes can become unplayable. Digital photos are also vulnerable, and can be lost when computer hard drives fail. But a young university student has come up with a new way to keep our memories secure.

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Every day we upload over a billion photos to the Internet. Even when photos are online, they are generally stored on computer hard disk drives, but these drives have limited lifetimes.

"How are we going to be able to store all that information and know that we can leave it there effectively in perpetuity and recall it in 50 years time, in 500 years time? Those are big challenges," said professor Simon Ringer, faculty of engineering and information technologies at the University of Sydney.

In Australia, a young PhD student at the University of Sydney is rising to that challenge.

Chen Zibin was examining ferro-electric materials under an electron microscope. He wanted to know if any could be used for data storage, when he made a chance discovery. He noticed the electron beam of the microscope could actually write data onto a disk.

"When we discovered this phenomenon we were so excited about it, because we think this is the first time ever in the world to find that the electron beam can actually write very small information on this material."

The conventional hard disk drive found in most personal computers stores our photos, videos and music as a stream of zeros and ones on a magnetic surface. But hard disk drives are prone to failure, and if they get bumped, the head will scratch the platter, and the data is lost.

The University of Sydney's system uses an electron beam to write on ceramic material. There are no moving parts, so little risk of scratching.

Still in the laboratory stage, the team expects the first use of this technology will be to help store photos and documents in the Cloud.

It currently stores 10 times the amount of data as a conventional hard drive, but Chen's supervisor is confident they can take it much further.

"What we've done here at the University of Sydney is a breakthrough that has a roadmap of a 100 times change in the computer memory capacity" said professor Ringer.

As the number of photos taken each day keeps growing, Chen's chance discovery could offer a new way to store our precious memories for generations to come.