Your next flash drive could be made of liquid. Researchers at Brown University have successfully stored image files in metabolomes – mixtures of liquids made up of sugars, amino acids, and various other small molecules.
By 2040, it is estimated that the world will have produced as much as 3 septillion (3 followed by 24 zeros) bits of data. With so much data around here may not be enough chip-grade silicon on Earth to store it with traditional chips so we’re going to have to come up with an alternative.
One possibility is to encode information in molecules, several previous studies have used DNA to do this but the team at Brown used metabolomes – liquid mixtures of small molecule chemicals found in biological material. They used different chemicals found within the mixture to encode one bit of digital data – a zero or a one.
The number of molecule types in the liquid determines the number of bits each mixture can hold. For this study, the researchers created libraries of metabolites, meaning each mixture could encode either six or 12 bits. Tiny droplets of thousands of mixtures are then placed on small metal plates in tiny droplets by a robot arm, encoding the desired data. After drying, the data can then be read out whenever necessary.
“It's not hard to recognize that cells and organisms use small molecules to transmit information, but it can be harder to generalize and quantify,” said researcher Eamonn Kennedy. “We wanted to demonstrate how a metabolome can encode precise digital information.”
The team used the technique to successfully encode and retrieve a variety of image files of sizes up to 2 kilobytes. That's not big compared to the capacity of modern storage systems, but it's a solid proof-of-concept, and there's plenty of potential for scaling up, the researchers say.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.