Could this new powder save us from an impending data storage crisis?

1 Nov 2018

Image: © Swapan/

Belgian researchers have successfully used powder as a form of data storage for an environmentally friendly alternative to hard drives.

Over the past few years, researchers from across the world have found new, strange ways to store digital data, ranging from nanostructured glass that could last for billions of years, to our own genetic code.

Yet one of the latest innovations from Ghent University in Belgium has found a more immediate, environmentally friendly alternative that could help us store vast quantities of data thanks to a new chemical process.

This new process allowed the researchers to store information – such as a QR code or small amounts of text – in a powder form that can then be read using a biochemical method of analysis and linked directly to a website, a city map or an app.

Publishing its findings in Nature Communications, the team described how two programs were written to make the processing of information run fast and automatically. The first program makes sure that the data on the molecules can be analysed in seconds, while the second program automates the translation process from the QR code to the molecules and vice versa.

Overcomes limits of DNA storage

The researchers believe this powder data storage method solves two problems, the first being that enormous quantities of heavy metals are needed to make USB sticks and hard drives, making them very damaging to the environment. The second major issue is that all of this information requires huge, energy-consuming servers to store it, but this new powder form could make the process significantly more carbon-neutral.

Speaking with The Telegraph, Steven Martens of the research team said: “I never imagined becoming part of an interdisciplinary research project for which I’d have to store sentences and QR codes on molecules, nor did I suspect I’d be working together with the biochemistry and informatics departments.

“The possibility of using DNA has been explored by scientists as an alternative for storing data, but practical limitations have popped up in the process. To counter these disadvantages, chemists have been trying in recent years to store data on synthetic sequence-defined macromolecules.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic