Pb-Scale Nano-Photonic Storage Breakthrough by Shanghai Researchers

Advancements in Optical Storage Technology: Shaping the Future of Data Storage

On February 22nd, according to a report by the Central People’s Broadcasting Station in Shanghai, the constant struggle of dealing with full phone memories or buying external hard drives due to limited computer storage space is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people’s increasing demand for data storage. A white paper published by a professional data storage institution reveals that by 2025, global data volume will soar from 33ZB in 2018 to 175ZB. To put this into perspective, if we were to store this amount of data using the conventional 1TB portable hard drives, we would need a staggering 1.75 billion units. Not only is this option costly, but the lifespan of data storage is short. As a result, the urgency for developing storage technologies that are capable of accommodating massive data volumes in an eco-friendly and secure manner is on the rise, whether it’s for personal use or industrial and agricultural production.

Recently, a team led by Academician Gu Min from ShanghaiTech University and the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences introduced a green, long-lasting, and large data storage solution using optical storage technology. Their research achievement, titled “A 3D nanoscale optical disk memory with petabit capacity,” was published in Nature. By leveraging dual-beam technology, the researchers broke through the optical diffraction limit, showcasing the ability to write and read information points in a three-dimensional space with up to a hundred layers and super-resolution sizes. The capacity of a single disk can reach the petabit level, equivalent to at least ten thousand Blu-ray discs. This groundbreaking technology aims to reduce the number of petabit optical discs required to store a year’s worth of global data by two orders of magnitude compared to hard drives, achieving a “one for a hundred” effect.

Nano Photon Storage Diagram

Image: Nano Photon Storage Diagram (Source: Central People’s Broadcasting Station)

According to Gu Min, this petabit-level massive 3D nanoscale photon storage technology marks a milestone in the field. Taking the GPT deep learning model as an example, the data set behind it includes as many as 5.8 billion web pages, totaling about 56 Pb of text, which is roughly the size of an entire standard athletic field if stored on 1TB portable hard drives. However, the three-dimensional nanophotonic storage developed by the research team can condense storage space to the size of a regular computer, significantly reducing the economic costs.

Furthermore, maintaining a stringent operating environment for databases, such as constant temperature and humidity control and protection against magnetism and dust, necessitates enormous energy consumption. For instance, in 2022, data centers in China consumed approximately 270 billion kWh of electricity, exceeding the annual output of two Three Gorges hydroelectric power stations. What’s particularly challenging is the need for periodic data migration every 3 to 10 years, posing risks of data tampering or loss and limited storage lifespans. The photon storage technology developed by the research team can reduce energy consumption by several orders of magnitude and increase lifespan to 50 to 100 years.

Breakthroughs in basic research are never achieved overnight. As early as 2013, Gu Min and his team began innovative explorations. In the field of laser direct writing, they utilized the principle of dual-beam to achieve 9-nanometer laser direct writing technology. The recent publication of nanophotonic storage technology in Nature not only successfully tackled the physical challenge of optical diffraction limits in the field of optical storage but also promises advancements in storage for China, showcasing potential in aerospace, biomedicine, satellite communications, and more.

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