CWRU technology making computer data storage cheaper and easier

Businesses and consumers may soon have a simpler, cheaper way to store large amounts of digital data.

A Case Western Reserve University physics professor and his graduate student have launched a company aimed at making an optical disc that holds 1 to 2 terabytes of data—the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 copies of Encyclopedia Britannica. The entire print collection of the Library of Congress could fit on five to 10 discs.

The technology they’ve developed would provide small- and medium-sized businesses an alternative to storing data on energy-wasting magnetic discs or cumbersome magnetic tapes, the founders say.

“A disc will be on the capacity scale of magnetic tapes used for archival data storage,” said Kenneth Singer, the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and co-founder of Folio Photonics. “But, they’ll be substantially cheaper and have one advantage: you can access data faster. You just pop the disc in your computer and you can find the data in seconds. Tapes can take minutes to wind through to locate particular data.”

Since 2007, when data generated worldwide first exceeded the amount of data that could be stored, the need for cheaper, more manageable storage has only grown.

To load what is the equivalent of 50 commercially available Blu-ray discs on a single, same-size disc, the scientists use similar optical data storage technology. But, instead of packing more data on the surface—which is why Blu-ray movies are sharper than DVDs—they write data in dozens of layers; not the two or four layers used in Blu-rays.

Here’s how:

Using technology first developed by the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems at Case School of Engineering, Singer and graduate student Brent Valle, in collaboration with their colleague Professor Eric Baer, make an optical film with 64 data layers.

A thick, putty-like flow of polymers is repeatedly divided and stacked, then spread into a film and rolled onto a spool.  They estimate they can make a square kilometer of film in an hour.

To make the final product, the researchers cut and paste film onto the same hard plastic base DVDs and Blu-rays are built on.

Valle said they need to make only slight adjustments to a standard disc reader to enable it to probe and read the data on each layer without interference from layers above or below.

Singer and Valle founded Folio Photonics after spending much of the summer at an entrepreneurial boot camp. During the National Science Foundation’s Innovation-Corps program, with sessions at Georgia Tech, they and physics lecturer Bruce Terry interviewed 150 potential customers, partners and suppliers, and underwent days and evenings of business and commercialization training.

“We learned in two months what some start-ups learn only through failing,” Valle said.

The Case Western Reserve scientists aren’t the only ones pursuing terabyte-storage discs. Other companies are “looking into a holographic technology, which requires two lasers to write the data and will require a whole new writer/reader,” Singer said. “Ours has the advantage of lower manufacturing costs and is more compatible with current readers and writers.”

The discs are aimed at storing data that isn’t needed instantaneously or often, but is valuable enough to keep.

Singer and Valle are specifically looking to provide an affordable option to computer centers that now regularly purge data due to the prohibitive costs of current storage technologies.

They are also trying to fill increasing needs in the fields of pathology and genomics. Pathologists are starting to store not just slides of tissues but the digital images they make, which can be manipulated to gather more information about disease or damage. With the plummeting costs of genetic sequencing, companies and institutions are generating enormous amounts of data and are seeking alternative ways to archive the data.

Folio Photonics is the third company to come out of the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems. The first, Advance Hydro, was founded in Austin, Texas in 2009, and was based on membrane work developed at the center. Baer, the Herbert Henry Dow Professor and Distinguished University Professor of macromolecular science and engineering, and center director, founded Polymer Plus, located in Valley View, Ohio, in 2010.

Folio Photonics will be based in the Cleveland area. Singer and Valle hope to have prototype discs and readers to show within a year.