While we may never find out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, thanks to Norsam Technologies, we now know how many pages of text can fit on the face of a nickel-plated silicon disk (up to 200,000).
And unlike other storage mediums (such as tape and plastic-based CDs and DVDs), these small, thin metal disks can withstand exposure to electromagnetic radiation, extreme temperatures and saltwater, keeping the data stored (technically, etched) on them safe and legible for, according to some estimates, thousands of years. Talk about long-term storage.
If you’ve never heard of Norsam Technologies, or HD (High Density) Rosetta, the name of their archival preservation technology, you are not alone. Norsam, which holds the exclusive commercial license to the focused ion beam technology developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory used to etch text and images onto a Permafilm metal disk, has been working with Los Alamos since 1995, yet it was only last month that the first Rosetta disks made their debut, at a ceremony sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, Norsam’s first customer and an organization established to “creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”
The Rosetta Project
“The Rosetta Project is the first prototype of a library that could last for 10,000 years … a way to store information for thousands of years,” explained Laura Welcher, the project’s director.
The genesis of the project, she said, was a question, or really a puzzle: How do you reliably store and transmit information so that future generations, hundreds or thousands of years from now, can learn and benefit from it?
Paper, if properly cared for, can last 1,000 years or more, but has its share of storage issues. It also takes up a lot of space.
“The obvious solution to everybody today is to just store information digitally, in bits,” said Welcher. “But there are lots of problems with that, from the kind of format to the material. A lot of the electronic media that we have, if you put it in a magnetic field, it erases. [And plastic CDs and DVDs degrade over time.] Then you have the problem of obsolescence of format. There are proprietary formats and programs that people are creating documents in, and some of those are no longer accessible today — like if you tried to open up early versions of Microsoft Word documents, you can’t do it, because those formats are no longer supported.”
The only solution that seemed as though it would be able to withstand the tests of time (and electromagnetic radiation, extreme temperature and corrosion) and space was something new being developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and commercialized by a company called Norsam Technologies, which the folks at Long Now first heard about back in 1998. Unlike other storage technologies, the Los Alamos/Norsam solution was analog and involved using focused ion beams to permanently etch data (tens of thousands of pages of text and drawings) onto small, thin nickel-plated silicon disks.
Now, 10 years later, as a result of that technology (and a lot of hard work by researchers, linguists and artists), we have the Rosetta disks, five round Permafilm metal disks, three inches in diameter, that contain the first two chapters of Genesis, translated into 1,500 languages, for a total of 13,500 pages of text. Their shelf life: a few thousand years, give or take a thousand.
As a result of the Rosetta Project, an increasing number of organizations are starting to look seriously at Norsam’s HD-Rosetta technology for long-term archival storage and preservation.
“Interest has picked up dramatically, mostly due to Long Now,” said John Bishop, the founder and president of Norsam. And thanks to that partnership, he said, Norsam was able to work out some kinks in the technology.
Yet while the kinks may be worked out, and the technology may “transcend technology obsolescence,” as Bishop and Welcher put it, and all you need to read the data etched on the disks is a 750-power optical microscope, the cost of doing an HD-Rosetta project may be off-putting to some.
The five prototype Long Now Rosetta disks, for example, cost $25,000 each. That’s in large part due to the eight years of research and effort and people hours required to find and organize over 1,000 translations of Genesis, design the project/disk, and the ion beam technology advancing to the point where Norsam could fit all the Rosetta Project data onto a single master disk and then duplicate that master to create five identical three-inch round disks.
However, as Bishop explained, another project may not take as long or be as expensive.
“We can turn stuff around within a couple of months, depending on the data,” he said. “We are a function of pixels, in so far as the amount of time it takes us to write the data. If you have some kind of image, it takes longer to write than, say, an 8 1/2 by 11 page of text.”
Customers work with Norsam to decide what and how much information they want stored and how — either on a low-density disk (that can store about the same amount of information as you would on microfilm or microfiche) or on a two-inch high density disk, which can fit between 1,000 and 100,000 pages of text. (Norsam also has metal CDs and DVDs.) Then they send Norsam the data they want placed on the disk via a digital file. Norsam then creates a master, writing the data onto the disk using focused ion beams, which costs around twenty cents a page, and duplicates the material from the master onto metal disks using a patent-pending process. The more copies you want, the greater the economies of scale.
Ultimately, Welcher and Bishop would like to see the cost of the HD-Rosetta technology come down to the point where it would be possible for any organization or institution (libraries, courthouses, research institutions) to make and replicate disks and distribute and store them around the world — with magnifiers, so you could easily read the information contained on them.
But even though Norsam is working on reducing the costs of writing and duplicating data, to make the technology more affordable, it will take some more time before the technology becomes ubiquitous. That said, though, Welcher believes that for organizations or institutions responsible for preserving “documents that we treasure and inform our civilization [like the Library of Congress], they should absolutely think about this now.”