The dye molecules are dropped onto an epoxy surface to which they chemically bond, locking information in place. To translate the bits of information in the different dyes, the researchers used the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Every number, letter, and pixel in the data they want to store is represented by a group of ones and zeros, depending on whether a particular dye is absent or present. The fluorescent microscope they use detects the presence or absence of the dye molecules. Knowing which dyes are there, they can decode the binary message. The researchers report that the information can be read with 99.6 percent accuracy, and in a 7.2-by-7.2 millimeter surface they were able to write 1,407,542 bytes of digital information with the dyes.

Harvard has licensed the technology to a new digital data storage company cofounded by Nagarkar, Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, and former postdocs Michael Fink and Alexei Ten, to develop the methods into a commercial product. Still in its early stages, the company is pursuing opportunities for partnerships with data storage providers.

The recent paper builds on earlier work by the Whitesides lab in which researchers used peptides to store digital information.

For years, scientists have been exploring the use of different molecules and even synthetic DNA to store information, including GIFs, text, and music, only to be thwarted by factors like cost and the slow read and write speeds of those technologies. The dye method offers an enticing alternative because of its speed and cost. The system writes information at an average rate of 128 bits per second and reads it at a rate of 469. That is believed to be the fastest reported read speed of any molecular information storage method.

As a demonstration, the researchers stored a seminal paper by Michael Faraday, along with a JPEG image of the 19th-century English physicist and chemist. They chose Faraday because of his foundational work on electromagnetism and chemistry, which paved the way for electricity to become useful as a practical technology and ultimately led to the modern age of information, said Samuel Root, a postdoctoral fellow in the Whitesides lab and co-author of the current paper.

The researchers believe data-storage methods like the dye innovation will become increasingly important in the 21st century. “In the future, we will need to store large amounts of data as our society transitions to a digital society,” said Nagarkar.

This work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


Beyond the cloud

With molecular data storage, cat videos could outlast us all