Harnessing The Power of Nature – Biological Data Storage

by Anupum Pant

The present storage technology

Storage technology has come long way from the year 1956 when IBM, the massive corporation started pushing this technology. Its journey started with data storage densities of orders as low as 40 bits per square inch in 1956 (RAMAC 350). This effort from their side indeed brought in great results and IBM could set a record of density record of 14.3 billion bits per inch, by the year 2000.

Today, in the year 2013, most HDDs (Hard Disks Drives) are able to store with densities of around 500 Billion bits per square inch; technology at this level has brought Terabyte sized HDDs to our computers. The research being done on increasing density of data is still a bustling area. As a result, we often see news breaking in with breath-taking new storage technologies almost every month.

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Just a few months back, using a technique called nanopatterning a team from Singapore was able to show 3300 billion bits per square inch. That is almost 6 times the density of a normal HDD. It means that a 1TB HDD of present size could hold 6TB if this could come to manufacturing units.

Seagate, in another story, promised data densities of the order 1TB per square inch (8000 billion bits per square inch) within the next decade. Which would enable hard drives of up to 60 TB in capacity.

A similar thing has happened to compact disks. From CDs to DVDs to Dual Layer DVDs to BluRays and several other storages that didn’t last – from zip drives to holographic storage. The data storage densities have improved dramatically.

Is it enough?

Although, our present ability to store a lot of data in small physical spaces is enough for now, to meet the future demands we will need to keep progressing with an unbelievable rate. The fact – physical storage is reaching its limit gradually, could bottleneck our progress in the future.

Biological Storage Devices

The exact storage concept used in amazing natural systems like the human brain and DNA has remained elusive for decades now. To keep up with the rapid pace of development it is important that we step up our work in this area. I think, the answer to our demands lies with the nature.

A brain, for instance, is estimated to be able to store something closer to 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). The sad part, we don’t exactly know how it stores. Moreover, we don’t even know how we could precisely calculate their storage limits. These estimates are just a theoretical calculation. We still have a long way to go.

The greatest storage device

Recent successful experiments with storage and retrieval of data in the human DNA has come with a new hope for the future. Teams at the EU Bioinformatics Institute and Harvard University have successfully stored famous speeches, photos, and entire books, and then retrieved them with 99.99% accuracy.

Being able to store data in the DNA will confer upon us three advantages. Firstly, it will be fast (very), yes, faster than the flash drive. Secondly, it won’t age with repeated storage cycles (around 10,000 years), at least not like HDDs which have moving parts. Finally, DNA will enable us to reach data densities of unimaginable levels. Imagine being able to store of half a million DVD disks in a single gram of DNA!  Technically that would amount to 700 terabits per gram (measuring in area is difficult for an entity like this). Others have reached to densities as much as 2.2 petabytes per gram.

Bring DNA drives to our PCs I say!

A Few Things About Sloths Everybody Should Know

by Anupum Pant

A few days back, on 20th October, Sloth Day was celebrated all around the world. You’d be thinking, what is so good about these strange animals, that makes people have a special day around them. Well, in that case, you need to read this.

What are these creatures?

Sloths are slow animals that make even cows look extremely active. They are so slow that they are almost stationary and algae grows on their hair. Most of their life is spent on trees hanging upside down. They hang on trees to protect themselves from the predators on the ground. Their bodies are so well engineered to stay inverted that the hair on their bodies, is oriented in the opposite direction – growing from stomach to back (This helps them to stay dry by draining water easily). Even dead sloths have been know to retain their grip and remain suspended after death. They come down only around once a week to excrete. They eat, sleep, travel, find partners, mate, give birth and even raise young ones in the canopies.

Although sloths might seem gross, creepy and unseemly, they really aren’t that bad. Sloths are sweet looking [1] [2] [3] animals (especially their babies, they are adorable) who can also swim efficiently and move wisely. We can definitely learn a lot from them.

Their diet is unbelievable

Sloths eat only leaves throughout their lives. They chew leaves slowly like cows to extract whatever nutrients they can. Sloth intestines are also adapted to extract the maximum out of their poor quality food, they are unusually long. They often like to shift to a different kind of leaf after a day or two. This balances their nutrient intake. Humans couldn’t possibly survive on a leafy salad diet for a very long time.

To save energy, sloths drop the temperature of their bodies at night. Even their bodies have more bones than muscles to prevent wastage of energy through muscular movement. After the Orangutan they are the most energy efficient animals.

Other facts about them

Sloths have blunt teeth to chew leaves properly, have large claws to hang on to branches and inverted fur orientation (as also mentioned before). Another interesting thing about them is that they have remained physically un-evolved for a long time because they don’t really have to compete with anyone else for their diet.

Mutualisms

This is where the awesomeness of Sloths come in. Sloths are home to a several kinds of other organism (tiny ones living in their fur). These organism depend on sloths (hosts) for various things and in turn provide an advantage to their hosts. This is called mutualism.

  1. Algae + Sloth – Algae, for instance, uses the long grooves on sloth hair to grow with a secure footing. As a rent for this safe apartment, the algae gives them [sloths] a nice shade of green color to camouflage on trees. This and their still bodies make them virtually impossible to spot with the naked eye. The camouflage protects them from eagles.
  2. Bacteria + Sloth – Apart from the several other bacteria which live inside a sloth to digest the leafy diet, two kinds of Cyanobacteria live on sloth furs too. These bacteria also give sloths a nice gray hue which helps them in the same ways as above.
  3. The Sloth Moth – The Pyralidae Moth also live on Sloths. These feed on the algae which grows on the fur. In return for the good food, moths give them nothing. Yes, nothing. This is called Commensalism.
  4. Others – Similarly, various other organisms like flies, mites and three types of beetles are often found living in a Sloth. Up to 900 beetles have been found on a single Sloth!

There is so much more to write about these amazing little creatures who provide for so many other creatures too. I’ll keep it for the second part that I’ll write some other day. So the next time you see a Sloth crossing the road, carefully pick it up by holding its mid body and gently place it on a tree. Remember to use a glove/cloth.

Bricks Which Are Lighter Than Air

by Anupum Pant

What would smoke look and feel like, if you could solidify it?

Aerogels

Although, first made in 1931, Aerogels are relatively newer materials and a tremendous amount of research is being done on them everyday. Lightest solids ever, Aerogels weighing about seven times lesser than air have been made. Their extreme properties have given a fascinating field of interest to students and scientists. [Read the last paragraph]

How are they made?
Aerogels, also known as solid smoke or frozen smoke are extremely light materials. They are made by a process called sol-gel process which involves removing all the moisture from a specially made gel (Hypercritical Drying). Although the procedure may sound simple, there is a lot of technology involved in making them. Moreover, practically usable Aerogels which can endure moist conditions and high stress conditions are much more challenging to make. Also, it is very expensive to make them. [They can be made at home – with costly equipment of course]

Why is it so light? 
The whole lot of porosity left inside due to drying of the gel is what makes it so light. You can think of them as a sponge which is hard like pumice. But, when you think of a sponge, remember that mostly Aerogels aren’t very resilient. That means, unlike sponge they won’t get back into the previous shape after they’ve been pressed a lot. They are much sturdier/tighter than sponges. A small (not very small; due to very low density they occupy large space) piece of Aerogel weighing just 2 grams has been shown to hold a 2.5 kg brick without deforming. Poorly made Aerogels, on the other hand can also not be very sturdy. They would deform with a hard press of a finger and stay deformed.

How light are they?
Agreed, they can be lighter than air, but the practical mass varies greatly. And they don’t float in air because, with air present inside them, they are slightly heavier than air (weight of air inside + solid material), but can be made to float in air by replacing the air inside it with Hydrogen or Helium. Their lightness and density is completely dependent on the amount of porosity included during the fabrication – which can be controlled. Also, the kind of gel used to make it, affects the weight of the final block. So a block with 3 feet in length, breath and height can weigh anything from 1 kg to just 160 gm.

Aerographite, a carbon Aerogel made by German material scientists from Kiel University and the Hamburg University of Technology, was said to have weighed only 0.2 mg per cubic centimeter. It was 5000 times less dense than water and 6 times lighter than air (counting only the solid material’s weight of course). [Published Paper]

Graphene Aerogel: As if that wasn’t enough, recently, Chinese material scientists developed a lighter material than Aerographite. It was based on Graphene. A Graphene Aerogel; seven times lighter than air. This one, unlike other silica Aerogels, can recover like a sponge after getting deformed. [Published Paper]

Other Properties

Aerogels exhibit various other desirable properties which make them useful for a myriad of applications [See the Wikipedia Article]. For instance, they are very good insulators of heat. A nicely made Aerogel block which is just under a centimeter thick can protect things from a direct flame. Other desirable properties are high surface area, high thermal and acoustic resistivity, low dielectric constant, and low refractive index.

Aerogels absorb water or moisture from the air and even from human skin easily. Handling them with bare hands can cause blisters. But, the ones which repel water have been made successfully by altering fabrication parameters. Also, if particles of it are inhaled, it can cause problems. Hence, hand gloves and respiratory masks are used to handle them.

I want to study interesting materials like these

If you think Aerogels and Wolverine’s claws are interesting things. You can make a career in researching materials like these by making a foray into Materials Science and Engineering. Most good universities offer a course in it. It is a budding field, growing at a rapid pace with loads of opportunities waiting for you.