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If you wear a diamond on your finger, it likely has flaws, even if you can’t see them. Don’t blame your partners for your flawed engagement rings, thank them. You could be flaunting the future of data storage on your digits.
A paper published Wednesday in Science Advances shows how diamonds can be harnessed to store data for the long term. Right now, a tiny diamond — about half as long as a grain of rice and thinner than a sheet of paper — can hold a hundred times more information than a DVD. That’s not much within the context of the world’s growing data hoard. But in the future physicists could access a diamond with storage capacity a million times greater than that of a DVD, maybe more.
Groups all over the world are scrambling to find a place to cram all the data we’re generating taking selfies, swiping credit cards and doing just about everything we do today. They’ve proposed DNA, holograms, old-fashioned magnetic tape and other ideas. Diamonds aren’t new to the memory game, either. They’ve been proposed for quantum data storage, which is kind of like teleportation. But this isn’t that. It’s basic storage 101 — 010101 (and so on).
It starts with a tiny, atomic-sized imperfection known as a nitrogen vacancy center in your otherwise perfect diamond. These flaws occur when a stray nitrogen atom — or a few of them — sneak in among its carbon structure. Deleting a carbon atom near the nitrogen leaves an empty space perfect for stashing data.
The researchers, a team of physicists from City University of New York, used lasers to encode and read data on these tiny spaces, which they treated like magnets that could repel or absorb an electron. To encode simple grayscale images like a smiley face, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger they added an electron by shining a green laser and took one away with a red laser. They read their data like a computer reads 0s and 1s, but instead of digits there was light, which indicated the presence or absence of electrons.
While both use light to read data, the concept is a little different from DVD storage, said Jacob Henshaw, a graduate student who worked on the study.
“A DVD is like a 2-D puzzle, and this diamond technique is like a 3-D model,” he said. Unlike the DVD, which has only one surface, a diamond can store data in multiple layers, like a whole stack of DVDs.
This storage would also work differently than a magnetic hard drive, because diamonds, as they say, are forever. Every time you access or rewrite your hard drive, the material it’s made of degrades, and after five or 10 years, it’s dead. But the defects in the diamonds don’t change, and if you do nothing, your data could last as long as your diamond.
“There is a no way you can change it. It will sit there forever,” said Siddharth Dhomkar, the lead author on the study.
Veterans in the data storage industry, like Jon Toigo, are skeptical. He worries that the only people fluent in this data exchange might be men in lab coats, that there will be flaws in the data, and that cost will be high, even with imperfect diamonds. “It’s usually a 10-year interval before the tech is released for commercial use,” he said.
The researchers say their industrial fabricated diamond, which cost about $150, was the cheapest thing in their experiment. Their concept works on any material with the same flaw and any flawed diamond — not just lab ones. “The bigger the diamond, the more defects, the more places to put information,” said Mr. Henshaw.
Whether or not your diamond engagement ring could one day also hold your wedding photos is something lab members have joked about. A ring on your finger has the same defects as a ring in the lab. But light exposure will scramble the diamond’s data: “You can put something on top of the diamond, but if you were to walk around in sunlight, you would erase your wedding photos, most likely,” he said.