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Encoding data on plastic molecules could lead to breakthroughs in storage technology

The words “if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another” were originally published in 1814 in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. At the time, the words were printed using revolutionary steam-powered printers that could roll through over a thousand sheets of paper an hour.

Since the early 2000s, it’s been possible to read all of Jane Austen’s works online, including Mansfield Park. But as of this year, the list of places her words are published has had a bizarre addition.

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In a new study, a team from the University of Texas at Austin has encoded a quote from Mansfield Park on a tiny plastic molecule. The researchers hope the study will help prove the viability of a new kind of technology for storing data.

Archiving has always been a problem. Even the most carefully stored and protected copies of Mansfield Park’s original print run are showing their age, with the ink fading and the paper crinkling.

We produce more data than ever. Current estimates put it at 1.145 trillion megabytes of data a day – if someone attempted to download all of it using current internet speeds it would take almost two billion years.

But the vast data centers we currently use to store data – largely using magnetic tape – is not up to the job. Even though there’s constant evolution in hardware and software, the requirements for faster processing powers and smaller components means lack of effective storage is creating a bottleneck and the current system cannot keep up with demand.

The search is on for smaller, more stable and efficient alternatives to digital hard drives. Recent research interest has fallen on DNA data storage – the idea we could use the building blocks of life, the system nature spent millions of years evolving to encode the blueprint for our species, as a means of storing and reading our own history and knowledge. When one scheme of technology fails, human nature turns to another.

Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay