liquid hard drive

What you didn’t know on the liquid hard drive

April 4, 2018

Most of the tech enthusiasts are familiar with liquid hard drive cooling, which is commercially available and a mainstream storage collateral feature. However, few of them remember the liquid hard drive discussion that emerged online in mid-2014, following the publishing of a study coming from the University of Michigan.

The liquid hard drive goes against the denomination itself, by translating into a fluid matter that would be able to securely store digital data. Such a liquid storage medium would allegedly be able to hold one terabyte of data per tablespoon.

The researchers involved in the liquid hard drive storage concept

  1. The 2014 joined-team from Argonne, the University of Michigan, NYU, and the University of Colorado â Boulder worked under the leadership of Sharon Glotzer, a chemical engineer at the University of Michigan, and David Pine.

The paper that summarized the team’s activity and its results is called “Digital colloids: reconfigurable clusters as high information density elements”, and features Carolyn Phillips as the first author, an Argonne scholar in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division – with a background in mathematics, mechanical engineering and nuclear propulsion.

  1. Another team of researchers whose results were publicized activates at the Federal Institute of Technology ETH in Zurich, Switzerland and is led by ETH lecturer Robert Grass. Their activity is conceptually related to liquid storage, although is features radical differences. The Zurich team aims to encapsulate and store every data produced by humankind into a securely protected “spoon-sized amount of DNA”. This instance the storage capacity would presume 455 million terabytes of data compacted into a single gram of DNA. This represents 455 exabytes, while the worldwide data is somewhere around 1.8 zettabytes, enough to fill approximately four DNA grams.
  2. The same University of Zurich hosts the research activity of a team led by Madhavi Krishnan, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Zurich. This team accomplished the creation and control of colloid arrangements and published their results in a 2015 paper entitled “Information storage and retrieval in a single levitating colloidal particle”. Their activity regards nanoparticles in colloidal solutions and colloids motion control. The manipulation methods developed here involves using optical and electrical signals at room temperature. The article is available here, and the interested readers can check the abstract for free.
  1. A parallel line of research in data storage comes from Institut Charles Sadron and Aix-Marseille Universite in France. The specialists here have successfully tested data storage in binary format on a synthesized polymer. Starting with the DNA structure of four nucleotides in base pairs, the researchers have made up a structure of nucleotides to which they have assigned values while linking them together. Ten grams of this artisanal polymer are able to store a zettabyte of data. The team stated that Harvard’s genetics professor George Church has inspired their exploits. George Church introduced the binary method with DNA and proved that the storage capacity is actually 1000 times higher than thought before. Exploring such types of storage belongs to the Synthetic Biology field.

The idea that binds together all the mentioned research is (as Sharon Glotzer states in an IBTimes article) that “wet computing” would operate with bio-compatible nanoparticles, making it possible to link human brain functions with data—containing storage devices, or even to insert brain implants that would allow outside information to enter the brain and be assimilated in a functional manner.

How does liquid hard drive storage work?

Another denomination for liquid storage medium is “soft matter”, and it can comprise all sorts of fluid materials from liquids, foams and polymers to biomaterials. The University of Michigan team focused their efforts on colloidal suspension matter, a solution where particles are not completely dissolved and maintain their specific properties. Using a solution of specially designed dimpled nanoparticles, the researchers noted that upon heating, the particles in the solution reorient themselves in predictable configurations. Forming four-particle clusters, the solution displays two different states besides its default state, therefore it rearranges in bits of data readable in the same way 0 and 1 are in computing. In other words, thermal energy determines particles rearrangement in two predictable states that could be used to store and deliver information.

Described as a vastly complex Rubik Cube, this particle arrangement interconnects the particles and a 12-particle memory cluster linked to a central spherical area provides an array of eight million unique states. Such a structure would be able to hold a terabyte of data the way any digital storage device would.

The missing yet undiscovered element is, as stated by the same Sharon Glotzer, a way to lock these clusters across the entire liquid mass involved.

The particles in the liquid matter involved in the research have been named digital colloids – as you may have noticed in the above-quoted title of the Michigan paper. The three essential characteristics of digital colloids are:

  • The ability of switching among micro-states with a known probability;
  • The possibility to lock/unlock this digital colloids’ ability;
  • The possibility to intentionally determine the cluster state so that information would be stored in this soft matter environment.

It is useful to note that this original source material estimates a storage capacity of 2.86 bytes for a 12-cluster structure, although we have quoted a different article above that spoke of a terabyte capacity. Using another article to clarify, we see that a teaspoon of the colloidal solution at 3% concentration could actually store a terabyte of data.

What is the potential of liquid hard drive storage?

As we have seen, the stakes in developing a functional and efficient liquid storage environment are very high. Two main elements stand out so far: the compatibility between such storage devices and organic data processors (synthetic biology, biometrics, digital enhancements for humans), and their amazing data storage capacity.

A more recent paper coming from the Michigan University researchers introduces the term of digital alchemy and puts into a larger context the quest for new matter. Continuing on the line of thermodynamic particle manipulation, the team (which also includes Sharon Glotzner), explores particle manipulation and connectivity and extends its research beyond colloids, extrapolating the structural configuration of nanoparticles towards building matter blocks with adjustable interactivity. Although their main focus remains on colloidal systems, it seems that discovering details on particle behavior and manipulation could offer general insights into the way all known matter functions.

Although commercial liquid storage devices might not appear soon on the market, the concept is not lost and opens new horizons in research and futuristic storage, as we have seen above.