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Spotlight on research: physics professor and graduate student seek to usher in new era of data storage

If the efforts of physics professor Kenneth Singer and graduate student Brent Valle come to fruition, then the storage of large amounts of data storage will become easier, cheaper, and faster.

To accomplish this lofty goal, the pair has recently created a company called Folio Photonics Technology, whose major product will be essentially the next generation of Blu-ray discs.

Current Blu-ray technology allows for the storage of up to 25 gigabytes of data. While practical for things like movies, 25 GB is often too small for pure data storage. Due to this limitation, large data centers must store information on cassettes, which take several minutes to spool, or on magnetic hard drives, which require large amounts of energy, since they must be kept constantly spinning.

Singer and Valle are working to alleviate this problem by creating a disc that will hold close to 1.5 terabytes, over 60 times that of the average Blu-ray disc.

“Optical data storage, because the capacity is so limited, is mainly used for the distribution of content like movies and games,” Singer said. “It turns out, once you get into the terabyte range, it opens up new kinds of markets in data archiving and large scale data storage.”

After the discovery by Singer and fellow physics professor Jie Shan that a polymer film developed by CWRU macromolecule professor Eric Baer could be encrypted with data, Singer has worked on plans to make 64 layers of the film into a disc. Similar to current Blu-ray players, different layers of the tape can be read by adjusting the focus of the player’s lens. Singer says that the technology needed to read these discs could be created by merely adding a pinhole to the design of a current Blu-ray player.

According to Singer, current Blu-ray disc design makes it difficult to add multiple layers to each disc.

On the other hand, using the polymer film, he has already been successful in creating a world record 23-layer disc. Each layer of the disc is at the physical limit for data capacity, or in other words, the maximum amount of information that can be written on the disc using a blue light. Blue light is the spectrum of visible light that can be most highly focused.

Each layer of the film is around 200 nanometers thick and contains a fluorescent dye. A three-micron buffer separates individual layers.

Singer says that his process of creating these discs is relatively cost-effective and efficient; one square kilometer of the film can be made in under an hour.

“This is like the Holy Grail of optical data storage,” Singer said. “All the big companies have research on it.”

According to Singer, what sets Folio Photonics apart from larger companies is their method for the creation of these discs. Many of those companies are focused on producing these discs using a holographic technique.

“The approach that most of them are using is not as good as ours,” Singer said. “It is much more costly and needs much more development of the reader-writer and actually has some very significant technical problems that need to be overcome.”

Singer says that his company will tailor itself to small and medium sized businesses that want an easy method to store archived data. He hopes that the product will be fairly readily available in the next several years.

Much of the foundation for the creation of Folio Photonics Technology was done this summer with Singer and Valle attending a “boot camp” for technology businesses in Silicon Valley.

There, Singer and Valle interviewed over 100 people, including potential customers and investors.

“Frankly, many people [at the camp] recognized our potential,” Singer said.

After completing his graduate work, Valle plans on running Folio Photonics Technology. He says that he has enjoyed the process of starting a company thus far.

“The amount of work associated with starting up the company has been pretty much on par with what I expected,” Valle said.

“What I’ve been surprised by is how much fun it has been. Most of the people we have interacted with are really enthusiastic, helpful, and encouraging. It’s great to see people get really excited about your ideas.”

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About the Contributor
Mike McKenna, Executive Editor
Mike McKenna is a senior biology and psychology student currently serving as The Observer's Executive Editor, after spending last year in the Director of Print position. Mike served his sophomore year and the end of his freshman year as the News Editor. Prior to bringing campus happenings to the CWRU community, Mike held a myriad of positions, including Asst. News Editor, Sports Layout Editor, and Research and Innovations Reporter. In addition to his newspaper duties, Mike is an active member of the CWRU Labre Homeless Outreach Ministry Program and the Newman Catholic Campus Student Association. A sports fanatic, Mike is, albeit somewhat unfortunately, a huge Chicago Cubs fan, and despite hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, an avid Packer-backer. You can reach Mike at michael.mckenna@case.edu.

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