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The University of Southampton

Classic feature film captured in glass in research collaboration with Microsoft

Published: 8 November 2019
SpaceX 5G Data Storage
University of Southampton research team, led by technology inventor Professor Peter Kazansky (Left)

A pioneering research partnership between Microsoft and the University of Southampton has enabled the encoding of a classic feature film on 2mm-thick quartz glass in a powerful proof of concept for next generation cloud data storage.

In collaboration with a global media and entertainment partner, researchers at Microsoft have successfully stored and retrieved the classic film in silica glass, in a demonstration of the resilient, low-cost and long-term storage system.

The Project Silica technique, which was invented within the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics’ Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), uses a femtosecond laser to create nanoscale ‘voxels’ in dozens of layers within the material.

Over 75GB of data was written onto the 7.5cm by 7.5cm proof of concept test which has been proven to withstand extreme heat, flooding and scratching, promising durable future data storage that could remain preserved for tens of thousands of years beyond contemporary methods.

The ground-breaking concept has been demonstrated several times by Southampton researchers in recent years, with a digitised ‘Solar Library’ being fired into space in 2018 on Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket. Scientists from the ORC and Microsoft Research Cambridge have joined forces to drive the technology forward over the past two and a half years, pursuing ambitious plans to transform the future of large-scale data storage.

Professor Peter Kazansky, the innovation’s inventor and Southampton Principal Investigator, said: “The vast potential of using nanostructured glass for digital data storage has attracted global attention since it was first demonstrated in 2013 with a 300kB recording of a text file. It is very exciting to have reached this latest milestone which reveals how the technology’s capability and capacity has greatly expanded through this pioneering collaboration.

“Expertise from the Optoelectronics Research Centre has helped develop a hundredfold increase in the system’s writing speed this past year and we look forward to advancing the technology further this coming year to allow it to work more efficiently while using less energy.”

Project Silica is aiming to become a long-term solution for the retention of inactive – or ‘cold’ - data. The scale and durability of the nanostructured glass makes it ideal for sectors such as the media and entertainment industry, who need reliable permanent storage of important digital content.

Current digital archival techniques require data to be repeatedly migrated, with hard disk drives wearing out within five years and magnetic tapes only typically lasting up to seven years. The lifetime for a Project Silica drive would be set at well over a thousand years.

Researchers have tested an array of environmental threats to demonstrate the durability of the silica glass, with the material withstanding being boiled in water, baked in an oven and scoured with steel wool.

The current 2mm-thick model can contain more than 100 layers of voxels, which act like three-dimensional pixels. These are permanently encoded with femtosecond lasers – like similar models used in laser eye surgery – and then read back using machine learning algorithms that interpret polarised light as it is shone through the glass.

The creation of the classic feature film proof of concept has been announced through a new collaboration between Microsoft and one of their global partners.



A ‘solar library’ stored on the 5G crystals were fired into space
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