ETH Zurich researchers store data in everyday objects

Scientists at ETH Zurich have discovered a new method for turning nearly any object into a data storage unit. The technique makes it possible to store data in all manner of objects, including shirt buttons, water bottles, and lenses of glasses. The data can be retrieved years later. The technique uses DNA as the storage medium.

The human body stores information inside DNA, but using it as a storage medium for inanimate objects is a change. The teams says that anyone who wants to 3D print an object needs a set of instructions to do so. Deciding to 3D print the same object years down the road requires access to the same set of printing instructions. ETH Zurich was able to encode those printing instructions into a 3D printed plastic rabbit.

The scientists say that the instructions encoded in the DNA can be recovered decades or even centuries later, directly from the object itself. Several developments in the last few years have made this advance possible, including Grass' method for marking products with a DNA barcode embedded in tiny glass beads.

The barcode in those beads is short at only 100-bits, the tech has been commercialized. The other advance is the significant growth in data volume that can be sored in DNA. A new method makes it theoretically possible to store 215,000 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA.

The team admits that the technique could be used for hiding information. Grass and his team used the tech to store a short film about an archive saved during WWII in Warsaw by hiding the data in milk cans. The video data was 1.4 megabytes. The team says that there would be no problem taking glasses encoded with data through airport security. The glass beads can be embedded in any plastic object that doesn't reach too high a temperature during manufacturing.