Why store data in flash drives when you could store it as a fine powder?

The powder uses macromolecules found in living systems as the storage system for small data.

Researchers have developed a new way to store data – in powder form – that could replace storage devices like flash drives and hard disks.

Apart from being smaller and more eco-friendly, this powder could also offer more potential in storage capacity by design.

A team of chemists, biochemists and computer scientists at the University of Ghent have taken inspiration from DNA, which encodes all the genetic information in living systems, to design a powder that can store short texts or QR codes.

Data is, arguably, one of the most valuable resources in the world, and is only limited by the physical limits of the systems currently used to store it.

Current data storage systems like USB sticks and hard drives require metals like iron and cobalt. These metals are sourced by mining the Earth – a costly and harmful process for people and the environment.

The data powder developed by researchers uses molecules found in living cells –macromolecules – made of Carbon, Nitrogen, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorous, etc.

Data Powder and its encoded QR code. Image: University of Ghent

Data Powder and its encoded QR code. Image courtesy: University of Ghent

Today, technology has allowed artificial DNA sequences to be created with a specific length and any sequence using the four bases – A, T, C and G. But the capacity to store information is considerably higher with macromolecules with more unique base elements.

The researchers wrote two algorithms that went into making the data powder – one to convert data to its chemical sequence, and a second to read the code.

The powder was used to store website URLs and app QR codes and read them successfully thereafter.

There are many avenues to explore with the process, the study said. Exploring how to read the output from a mixture of two or more different data powders is a big next step.

The study was published in Nature Communications.

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