5D Data Storage: How Does it Work and When Can We Use it?

February 20, 2016 by Tim Youngblood

Scientists have made 5D data storage that can store data for billions of years. How does it work? and when will it be available to consumers?

What is 5-dimensional data, and when will it be available to the public?

Scientists at the University of Southampton have developed a 5D glass disc that can store 360 Terabytes of data for billions of years. The discs are made out of nanostructured glass, and the data is stored and retrieved using femtosecond laser writing. These discs can store data for up to 13.8 billion years, that's over twice the estimated age of the Earth, and about equal to the estimated age of our universe. Essentially, the discs are made by a laser that can make microscopic etchings in nanoglass. 


Some famous documents lasered into 5D discs

Some famous documents lasered into 5D discs


So what exactly do they mean by five-dimensional? Traditionally, we think of our universe in terms of the four known and easily perceptible dimensions. The first three dimensions are our directions of movement or an XYZ axis; the 4th dimension is traditionally thought of as time. These four dimensions combined are referred to as spacetime. Unfortunately, this can cause quite a bit of confusion. The five-dimensional discs made by the University of Southampton are not time traveling devices that can view parallel universes but instead tiny patterns printed on three layers within the discs.

Depending on the angle they are viewed from, these patterns can look completely different. This may sound like science fiction, but it's basically a really fancy optical illusion. In this case, the five dimensions inside of the discs are the size and orientation in relation to the three-dimensional position of the nanostructures. The concept of being five-dimensional means that one disc has several different images depending on the angle that one views it from, and the magnification of the microscope used to view it. Basically, each disc has multiple layers of micro and macro level images.


A laser burning microscopic images into 3 layers

A laser burning microscopic images into three layers

Since glass is plentiful and inexpensive, this technology has a very good chance to become widely available in the future. People are already thinking of uses for this technology, everything from storing an immense library of video games to storing the entirety of human history and culture for future civilizations. Professor Peter Kazansky is very optimistic about the technology's potential, he elaborated in an interview with the University of Southampton's news publication:

"It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilisation: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten."


The Benefits of the 5D Disc

By using five-dimensional shapes that are laser-etched into glass discs at a microscopic scale, the University of Southampton has developed the highest storage efficiency in a data storage device to date. The discs also have the longest life-span of any data storage device to date. With all of the amazing things that they can do, people all over the world are excited to get their hands on one.

If you're one of those people, you're in luck; the team at Southampton is currently looking for partners to invest in this technology in hopes that it can be commercialized in the future. It could only be a matter of time before this kind of data storage is the norm.

  • thebuttonthief February 24, 2016

    Isn’t glass technically a liquid? Doesn’t it’s shape mutate with time?

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    • tim yb February 24, 2016
      That's a great question! Glass will warp and lose shape over time, which is why the discs were made with nanostructured glass, which has different physical properties than glass. Here's an article that shows how nanostructured glass is made, and lists some of its properties if you'd like to learn more:
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    • Laurence Perkins July 15, 2019
      No. That's a myth. Glass is an "amorphous solid" meaning that it doesn't have a natural, fixed crystalline structure. What this means is that -- whereas crystalline materials stay solid until you get them hot enough that they pass their "melting point" and the crystals decompose pretty much all at once and it's suddenly a liquid -- glass just gets softer and softer as you heat it up with no sudden phase change. This makes it extremely malleable with proper techniques and you can give it a wide variety of properties just by changing how you heat and cool it. However... If you're looking at a stained glass window at any temperature you're likely to find outside a volcanic eruption the "viscosity" (resistance to flowing) of the glass is higher than the viscosity of the lead that's used to hold the pieces together.
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