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Molecular Electronics

Glowing dyes could store digital data at low cost

Encoding data as dots of fluorescent dyes is simpler than DNA-based storage

by Prachi Patel, special to C&EN
November 21, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 42


An inkjet printer deposits dots that are mixtures of seven colored dyes, which then give off a spectrum of light that is read with a fluorescence detector. In this example, four dyes encode 01001101.
Credit: Adapted from ACS Cent. Sci.
A new data storage system uses mixtures of seven dyes to represent a string of digital bits (a one or zero) that encodes a text character. The first of the eight bits needed is always 0 and is left blank. A fluorescence microscope is used to read the data.

Current optical and magnetic data storage technologies can store an impressive amount of information, but the data typically last less than 2 decades. Researchers have now stored data in tiny dots of glowing dye molecules as a low-cost, potentially longer-lasting storage option (ACS Cent. Sci. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.1c00728).

George M. Whitesides of Harvard University and colleagues used an inkjet printer to deposit droplets of fluorescent dye solutions on an epoxy surface. Each droplet encodes a text character using a mixture of up to seven dye colors. The presence or absence of each color represents a one or zero. The researchers use a fluorescence microscope to decipher the individual colors and read the data.

Fluorescence image of an array of dots encoding 14,075 kilobytes of text, with an inset showing a close-up of the colored dots along with a 100 micrometer scale bar.
Credit: ACS Cent. Sci.
A fluorescence microscope image shows printed dye droplets that encode text characters from Michael Faraday’s paper “Experimental Researches in Electricity.”

Compared with molecular data storage systems that require synthesizing and sequencing DNA, the dye-based system is “simple and low cost,” says Whitesides, who is also a board member at the data storage solution start-up Datacule.

The dye-based system could write data at an average of 16 bytes per second and read at about 59 B/s. By reducing the spacing of the dots from 30 to 1 µm, the researchers should be able to get a density of 0.8 gigabits/cm2, almost as high as the 1.28 Gbits/cm2 density of magnetic tape.

The low cost would be the main advantage over magnetic tape and DNA storage, says Robert Grass, a chemical engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich. “The beauty of it is its simplicity,” he says.


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