Science

Sapphire disks could communicate with future generations 10 million years from now

Sapphire disks could communica...
A sapphire disk etched in platinum could preserve information for future generations to decipher 10 million years from now (Photo: Kluka)
A sapphire disk etched in platinum could preserve information for future generations to decipher 10 million years from now (Photo: Kluka)
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A sapphire disk etched in platinum could preserve information for future generations to decipher 10 million years from now (Photo: Kluka)
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A sapphire disk etched in platinum could preserve information for future generations to decipher 10 million years from now (Photo: Kluka)

Storing data for longer than a few years is tricky enough with rapidly advancing technology, so what are you supposed to do if you need to store data for thousands or even millions of years? That's just the problem facing nuclear waste management companies, who need a way to warn future civilizations of hazardous sites that will withstand the test of time. Luckily a recent proposal may have the solution with a sapphire disk etched in platinum that could survive longer than humanity itself.

Communicating with future generations is tricky for any number of reasons. Aside from finding a medium that will remain intact over the years, there's no way to accurately predict how people of the future will read data, what language they'll use, what technology they'll have at their disposal, or if they'll even be human by then. But when the information being preserved has to do with radioactive waste that can still be dangerous thousands of years from now, it's even more crucial to leave a warning that can be easily interpreted centuries from now.

That's why ANDRA, a French nuclear waste management agency, created a disk made of industrial sapphire that could last millions of years, thanks to the gem's exceptional toughness and resistance to scratching. The prototype was made by taking two thin, 20-cm (7.9-in) wide disks, etching one side of one disk in platinum, and then molecularly fusing them together. One disk made this way costs €25,000 (about US$30,738) and could hold up to 40,000 miniature pages of text or images. Theoretically, the sapphire should preserve the etchings so they can be viewed by any future archaeologists using a microscope. Currently the prototype has been submerged in acid to test its resilience, and ANDRA is confident the results will show the disk could survive for 10 million years.

The sapphire disk is one of many ideas currently being explored by ANDRA, which started a project to bring together material scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other specialists to explore ideas for warning future excavators about hazardous waste sites. Fortunately the team has plenty of time to form a definite solution, since the nuclear waste repositories operating now will most likely not be sealed until the 22nd century. Even with time on their side, the group still hopes to identify all possible solutions to the problem and then narrow them down by 2014 or 2015.

ANDRA's project and sapphire disk may be aimed at managing radioactive waste, but whatever idea it settles on could open the floodgates for preserving even more vital information for the far off future.

Source: Science

15 comments
Cybes
These guys need to talk to the Long Now Foundation (http://longnow.org/). They've been thinking about long term data storage for years - and their solution is human readable.
Douglas Baumwall
Interesting technology, but the article doesn't consider two much more important points. 1) Rather than finding a way to warn future civilizations of hazardous nuclear sites, we need to avoid creating them in the first place, and 2) At the rate we're destroying our world, our species will not survive for thousands, let alone millions of years.
Calvin k
I wonder if ancient builders of tombs and temples went through the same process, "must warn future generations of this awful curse!"
And I wonder if there is movie like entertainment in the future they will have magical sapphire disk etched with platinum as plot device.
!
Techo Naut
Seems like cave drawings are the way to go...
Slowburn
If you subject nuclear waste to neutron bombardment you can make it go away on a human time frame.
The Creator
too bad we didn't have cheap access to space like a space elevator or startram, or some type of to orbit capabilities than chemical rockets, then we could just launch it (and all other non recycleable trash into the sun.
Ali Kim
It would be silly not to consider the possibility that humans could fail to clean the mess that's already been made. Think about the big picture. If the Bible had been compiled on a similar, indelible medium, we may not have so many splits and cracks between Christians, Jews, and Muslims (since all of their holy books refer to similar ancient events).
SpaceBagels
There's already a solution. Google liquid fluoride thorium reactor nuclear waste recycle.
Or watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9M__yYbsZ4&feature=player_embedded
Tony Smale
Two possibilities : 1/ Future population is able to accurately read and understand this disc. Such a population is also probably able to detect radioactive material, and therefore doesn't need the disc. 2/ Future population is unable to accurately read and understand this disc. Such a population notices that people get sick and animals stay away from a particular area, and therefore stay away regardless of our warnings.
Either way, isn't this a completely pointless exercise as far as the intentions go?
kellory
SpaceBagels, I just spent the full two hours watching your vid. I could not turn it off. It reminds me of the idea behind "Atlas Shrugged" of nearly free power. Why in the hell, are we not using this right now? Let alone giving the research to the Chinese? This makes no sense.