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Nanobiotechnology August 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Ivona Petrache

Optical Molecular Storage

Why is this topic significant?

An unconventional molecular-storage technology may enable engineers to store data in quaternary code on a polymer platform. The technology is unlikely to disrupt the market for traditional data storage just yet, but competition with other molecular-storage technologies such as DNA storage may be fierce.

Description

Scientists from Case Western Reserve University have developed a method to store data optically in quaternary code (of 0, 1, 2, and 3) on a polymer platform. The scientists used transparent and colorless polymethyl methacrylate films that contain two small dyes—cyano-substituted oligo (p-phenylene vinylene) and o-nitrobenzyl ester. The researchers used thermal and ultraviolet- (UV-) light treatments and UV irradiation to write the codes and to read them, respectively. The quaternary code refers to nonfluorescent film (0), thermal treatment (1), UV-light treatment (2), and both thermal and UV-light treatments (3). The scientists used metal and wood templates to write the data on the polymer films.

To determine if the data remain on the polymer films, the researchers used a series of tests—including writing on the codes containing film with a marker, submerging the film in boiling water, and exfoliating the surface of the film with sandpaper. In all tests, the films retained the data, and the data suffered no damage.

Implications

The visualization of color-coded data could be important to the future success of molecular storage. Using individual molecules to store data (or molecular storage) promises a very high increase in storage density in comparison with storage density of computer chips currently on the market. Storing data optically would mean that no specialist knowledge is necessary to decode the data. The optical trait positions the patterned polymer films well for serving any other molecular system and may aid the researchers' efforts to make the films commercially available. Applications may serve any industry that processes and stores significant amounts of data.

Currently, the researchers are working to increase the data density of the films by shrinking the resolution of the patterns. The scientists are also exploring the possibility of incorporating a third stimuli-responsive dye into the films. A third dye allows scientists to store data in a septenary code, thus increasing the storage density.

Impacts/Disruptions

The researchers' optical molecular storage is still a few years away from commercialization and is unlikely to replace the chips in many data-storage applications. Nevertheless, the technology directly competes with other molecule-based data-storage technologies, such as DNA storage. In the past five years, scientists have made rapid progress with storing data in DNA. Recently, researchers at Harvard University encoded the image of a hand and the motion picture of a running horse in the DNA of living Escherichia coli cells. And scientists at the University of Washington and Microsoft stored 200 megabytes of data in DNA. In 2016, Microsoft asked biotechnology start-up Twist Bioscience to manufacture 10 million DNA strands with specific sequences that Microsoft put together. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also taking a molecular approach to address the challenge of storing and processing data. The organization launched the Molecular Informatics program, which aims to investigate "the wide range of structural characteristics and properties of molecules to encode and manipulate data."

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Data storage, data processing, data management, health care, defense, R&D

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Sensors for Human–Machine Interactions

Why is this topic significant?

Researchers have developed flexible sensors that can autonomously heal at ambient temperature and that can detect small mechanical signals and interpret them to a computer. These traits may enable the sensors to improve the capabilities of many human–machine interfaces.

Description

Researchers at Sichuan University have developed flexible sensors capable of passing data about human facial expressions and vocal-cord vibrations to a computer. The sensors consist of a conductive network of cellulose nanocrystals and chitosan-coated epoxy latex. The sensors are highly sensitive and can self-heal within 15 seconds at ambient temperature without external stimuli. They are also robust. Even after repeated cutting, bending, and healing cycles, the sensors can still maintain a high healing efficiency and still reliably interpret signals.

The researchers attached the sensors to a human's face and throat, giving the human–machine interface the capability to detect very faint human motions. In tests, the sensors were able to detect strain from the movements of facial muscles and send the information to a computer to process and interpret it.

Implications

The Sichuan University sensors' ability to self-heal rapidly—because of the combination of cellulose and chitosan that forms a hydrogen-bounded structure within the sensor—is a significant improvement on previous flexible sensors. Typically, flexible sensors can easily suffer scratches and other damage. These incidental scratches and damaging cuts can potentially compromise the sensors' functionality. Flexible, self-healing sensors offer distinguishable signal, reliability, and improved stability and healing capability under mechanical stress (such as the aforementioned unavoidable scratches and mechanical cuts).

Impacts/Disruptions

The Sichuan University sensors are a step forward in flexible sensors for human–machine systems. Previous flexible sensors found use mostly in signal collection and stopped short of signal processing and command-output processing. The researchers' combination of self-healing technology and a sensing tool that interprets small mechanical signals into electrical signals is promising and could attract interest from industries in which human–machine interactions via wearable sensors are useful. Health-care markets are particularly promising. For example, the flexible sensors could help to give human–machine interfaces intuitive real-time speech processing, perhaps including assisting people with impaired speech. The sensors could be functional enough for other complex medical uses, such as in wearable devices and advanced prosthetics.

Prospects for the sensor outside health-care markets are uncertain. If the system ties specifically to interpreting facial expressions, then it will likely face stiff competition from camera-based systems. Machine vision is progressing rapidly, and various efforts to interpret human facial expressions exist. Perhaps, however, the sensor will be able to play a role in situations in which cameras are unavailable or unreliable—for example, in some industrial environments or during military operations.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, artificial intelligence, robots, manufacturing, any industry that relies on human–machine interactions

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: