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In many science fiction stories, crystals where used by ancient alien civilisations to store information that could last millions of years.

For example, in Stargate, "control crystals" that looked like hexagonal-shaped rods could store information and could be interfaced into larger computer systems to perform different functions. In some cases, the crystals where fashioned into flat boards and apparently where more efficient than the crude hexagonal rods.

My question is, could we humans in the near future use crystals like those in Stargate to store electronic data? Could we use Quartz crystal to achieve this? or would we need to use a different type of mineral? And would this technology be better than other conventional data storage methods we use today?

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

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    $\begingroup$ the fortress of solitude grown by supe is a classic example of crystal that can double up as a data storage device, however unlike our magnetic flux pattern reading motorized platter(HDD) or even the NAND flash(SSD) the glass(crystal) capture information by using a laser to alter its optical properties such as reflective index in 5D (3D physical space + 2D polarity and intensity of beam) and the pros is crystal's extremely long shelflive as well as coding ernomous data within compact space. Cons is probably it is non-rewritable or too inefficient at the moment. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jun 25 '15 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ It isnt necessarily a disadvantage if crystals are non-re-writable. They could be used to archive huge amounts of backup data for example. That typically wouldnt need to be overwritten. I'd say that as long as read operations on these crystals are efficient, then the technology would be a suitable alternative to backup drives etc $\endgroup$ – Notaras Jun 25 '15 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ kindly disregards my earlier comment stating the cons, we can rewrite crystal over and over again using a technique known as "anchoring transition" using laser or electric field to orientate the crystal molecules. in conclusion crystal storage topped DNA storage which last millions of years with rewritability that lasts til end of time. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jun 25 '15 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ What do you think the memory in your SSD or SD chip is made from? Silicon crystals, no? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 25 '15 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to see other examples in fiction of crystals being used to store information and/or used as computers I highly recommend you check out the bizarre (but imho brilliant) Zardoz [imdb.com/title/tt0070948/] $\endgroup$ – Jimmery Jun 25 '15 at 16:00
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Yes. Crystals can be used to store data.

Holographic data storage uses crystals to store data.

The data density has the possibility to be much higher than common magnetic or existing optical data storage methods. This is because holographic data storage records information in the entire volume of the crystal and is capable of recording multiple images in the same area utilizing light at different angles.

The method may also be faster as it can be used to read the data in parallel more easily than existing methods, reading over one million bits at once. You can think of this like shining a light through a photo slide, all the information comes out at once (further described here).

You can use quartz for a read-only data storage, but due to that limitation it's unlikely to gain widespread use. There are a lot of types of crystals. The word crystal is like the word salt, it's the name for a general class of something, but is commonly used to refer to a single poster child in the class. So, while quartz will not likely be used for data storage because it doesn't display a high photorefractive effect, crystals of a different type will be used to achieve read-write data storage. Crystals that do display high photorefractive effects:

Photorefractive materials include barium titanate (BaTiO3), lithium niobate (LiNbO3), organic photorefractive materials, certain photopolymers, and some multiple quantum well structures.

Additionally, it's not likely the form factor will be like that seen in Superman, more likely these crystals will be very small and encased in a protective covering.

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    $\begingroup$ Most likely they'll look like thumb drives or SD cards :) $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jun 25 '15 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ I read once that humans have difficulty handling and tend to lose things smaller than a dime. We can assume that no matter how efficient our data recording gets, the storage devices won't get smaller than a dime for human factors reasons. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Jun 25 '15 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim2B Very true. Engineering would be a lot easier if humans weren't involved :) $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jun 25 '15 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ I somehow had to read "over one million bits" in the voice of Mr. Evil, with airquotes and all $\endgroup$ – x29a Jun 25 '15 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ @x29a It's doctor Evil. He didn't spend six years in evil medical school to be called mister. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jun 25 '15 at 6:34
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You could use crystals to store data, but you have to create them yourself.

A "perfect" crystal provides a perfectly regular structure that repeats itself (the most famous examples being salt and diamonds).

Since the structure is so regular, you can store data by altering somewhat that structure (putting atoms of different sizes); alterations of the structure could be detected (v.g., through X-rays refraction) and interpreted as the data they represent.

Of course, that also means that (unless very advanced technology/magic is available) you do not use them as you use your HD or USB drive... they are "read-only" data devices; once built you cannot modify them.

Additionally, the need to use a "perfect" crystal as the base and the need to carefully measure the alterations to its structure means that you cannot "mine" it, but grow it in a lab or a similar device.

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  • $\begingroup$ A 3-d storage media need not be read-only and impressed when built, though that is a good choice for super-archival use cases as being hardest to change on its own over time. A block of material can have reversable state changes to tiny storage sites within, e.g. altering the arrangement of atoms in a unit cell. Look at how CD-RW media works: phase change of the material. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 24 '15 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz I do not claim that being read-only is a goal of using crystal storage, but a limitation of the method I describe. You can only alter the structure of the crystal as it is being grown; after that to change its structure you would need to selectively "swap" atoms (extracting atoms from the crystal and introducing others in its position) without altering the rest of the crystal which is too much of a stretch. Of course, there could be other techniques to use crystals for data storage that do not have such limitation; I just do not happen to know any of them. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jun 24 '15 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ I elaborated in a new Answer. Many ways exist and are used now or seen in biology; just store in 3D instead of on a 2D surface. "Too much a stretch" is how cdrw media or magneto-optical media works, or how nitinal memory metal does its trick... $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 25 '15 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76: You're thinking too much of very hard crystals like diamond (though, even diamonds melt at high enough temperatures). Not all crystals are as immune to laser heat as diamonds. Take sugar for example, which is a perfectly good example of a perfect crystal: you can alter sugar after creation using acids, lasers, a hot needle etc. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jun 25 '15 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ @slebetman And now you gave me the idea of a sugar-crystal archive that was accidentally destroyed by explorers in a flood :D Or salt, more likely, to make it more alien-friendly... $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jun 25 '15 at 11:04
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A 3-D storage media that can be read and written to might be referred to as a crystal by virtue of being a 3D grid of unit storage cells, no matter what the underlying technology may be.

It is more likely to be called a crystal if it looks like a gemstone: optically translucent. If it is read/written by lasers, that will be the case, in order to access the interior.

The storage cells would not be any kind of natural mineral. I can imagine a cell being a few atoms on each side of a cube, but carefully engineered to provide multiple stable states and mechanism to absorb the laser light and cause a change; something like a Chlorophyll absorbs light and drive an electron transport chain to eventually push the state into a different stable valley. But rather that being able to harness as much light as possible, it would be tuned to require precise frequencies simultaneously, allowing intersecting beams to address it.

(Actually, the intended cell size is too small to uniquely address that way. So a larger clump might have one "receiver" that takes coded data to a local grid of storage bits.)

The "state" can be stored in any number of ways that re-arrange a small number of atoms without adding or removing any: folding, flipping a group to a different permutation, orienting something differently within the surrounding structure, moving atoms to a different position. But state can also be stored as charge like in current flash memory or the perminant field in an "electoret" or magnet; or as energy levels within electron orbitals; or the quantum spin of electrons.

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  • $\begingroup$ As well as needing the ability to control a change of state to write something, the different states need to have a variable property that can be easily detected in order to be able to read the data. The states need to be mutable when written, but remain stable when read. So just flipping a single electron's spin by itself for instance may not give you this. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Jun 25 '15 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Right: "stable valley" means it won't change on its own. If thermal energy is greater than the valley depth, it's not stable! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 25 '15 at 16:52
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Yes, we do it every day. All transistors are crystals. you question intimates can a 3d crystal store information. Yes again. Why don't we use them more? because I can store an incredible amount of info, cheaper and more reliably on a 'flat' chip( which by the way has 3D qualities), than a difficult to fabricate 3d multi-layered chip. The idea of a hologram is interesting, but the technology is un inspired. theoretically we could have a holographic CD reader that has no moving parts. practically .. why I have a 'thumb drive' that can store a terabyte of info on the size of, well my thumb nail... which by the way equals a topo map of the world above and below sea level for $200.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any reliable sources that can confirm that transistors are crystals ? $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse Jun 25 '15 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I have many. Do you know what a transistor is? $\endgroup$ – SkipBerne Jun 25 '15 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ Yes i do. It is a semiconductor component mostly made from metalloids Germanium and Silicon and the alloy GaAs and SiGe. Though i find no evidence that metalliodis or alloys are crystals. Which is why i ask if you have any source that can enlighten me. $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse Jun 25 '15 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ metalloids? hmmm. do you mean the pure metals like Silicon and Germanium, formed into CRYSTALS that are 'doped' to create a structure with more free electrons the 'P', like with Arsenic or with Gallium to create a deficit of electrons the 'N' as in a PNP or NPN bipolar or N channel or P channel field effect transistors? transistors are not alloys, which are simply mixtures of metals but are Solid State Semiconductors due to the crystalline CUBIC lattice that holds the impurities in place so the magic of the junctions can take place. google 'Solid State Theory' and go to the Wiki link. $\endgroup$ – SkipBerne Jun 25 '15 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ The technology of making "chips" starts with the need to fabricate a perfect single crystal of silicon. So those that are part of integrated circuits most definitely are. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 25 '15 at 17:37
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Can crystals be used to store data? It's already been done. As @Samuel mentioned, these are not Superman-esque crystals, however.

So what advantages do crystals have over other storage mediums? You actually mentioned the most important reason you would use crystals in your first line - "to store information that could last millions of year".

Current storage technologies typically have a lifespan that in the ballpark of 10 years. There are some storage technologies that could theoretically last up to a 1000 years, but that's still not very long in the grand scheme of things. Crystal-based storage technology could last a million years.

So why don't we use them more? Well, when was the last time you needed to store something and make sure it would last for a million years? With our current lifespans, we won't need that durability of storage unless we figure out that humanity is going to be wiped out by some sort of apocalyptic event.

Also, there's no easy way to write to them. The increased storage sized in not significant enough to compensate for the fact that they are, for the time being, read-only storage.

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