Cheap biological material may replace CDs and magnetic disc drives after a breakthrough by university scientists which has enormous significance for the future of data storage. A research team at the University of Syracuse, New York, have developed a three-dimensional storage system using a light-sensitive pigment, similar to light sensitive molecules in the human eye. The pigment, called Bacteriorhodopsin, changes form when hit with red light. A red laser of one wavelength is used to select the molecule to be written to, and then it is hit with a second, laser pulse of a different wavelength of red light. This constitutes a write cycle. The use of a single wavelength of red light can read the data. The data is erased by the use of a blue light pulse. This gives a data storage system that can store binary data. Currently the system has a error rate of 1 in 10,000 bits, and uses 10,000 molecules per bit of data. The molecule switches state in 1/2000 of a nanosecond and stays in the same confirmation for five years maximizing data integrity. Two Dimensional optical storage systems, like CD-ROMs, are restricted by their surface area, and how close you can pack the bits of information. But the Syracuse system is three-dimension and the laser can switch on or off a molecule anywhere in a container – giving vastly greater storage potential than present systems. Professor Robert Birge, who runs the project, claims that the system will be available commercially in three years, and is waiting on the development of cheaper more controllable lasers, and perfection of the Gel to house the Bacteriorhodopsin. If these problems are overcome, he reckons that each cubic centimeter of gel will hold 8 Gigabytes of information and cost around $10 to produce. The perfect mixture of gel and Bacteriorhodopsin mixture needs regular distribution molecules of pigment within the gel. The group is currently conducting trials aboard the NASA Vomit Comet, a plane designed to produce zero gravity by flying in parabolic swoops. The patents on the technology are owned by Syracuse University, and Birge reckons that the university will either license the technology, or spin out the technology in a biotech company. Birge reckons that they have picked a winner, by bringing the biological approach to computing. Bacteriorhodopsin, obtained from salt marsh bacteria, can be grown in vats, and the protein genetically engineered to change its properties, which means that the raw materials are extremely cheap and customizable. The research group has been funded by the US Department of Defense and the industry funded Center for Molecular Electronics. This funding is being cut this year as the group has to move the project onto a commercial footing.
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