RIT engineering professor builds business on former NASA silicon disk technology
Apollo 11 time capsule technology becomes foundation for today’s high tech archiving system
April 11, 2013
by Michelle Cometa
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The latest in archiving technology for preserving ancient manuscripts and 21st century data had its debut on the moon.
Forty years after Apollo 11 used a silicon wafer to preserve congratulatory messages to the U.S. from around the world, the concept has re-entered the technology atmosphere, and is being used as an ‘earthly’ archiving system by researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology.
PR Mukund, a professor of electrical engineering at RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, is using that technology as the basis for waferfiche, a high-tech archiving system he and his colleagues at his company, NanoArk Corp., developed that can preserve data on silicon wafers.
A recent article in NASA’s Spinoff 2012 annual magazine features Mukund and the NanoArk technology. It was especially meaningful to be featured in the magazine, he says, not only because of the NASA-technology connection, but because he grew up during the height and excitement of NASA’s voyages to the moon.
“In 1969, I was 17 years old and Apollo was huge news,” says Mukund, who was raised in Bengaluru, India, before coming to the U.S. in 1974. “It was amazing. I was totally caught up in it and thought, how wonderful would it be if I could be a part of things like this?”
It would be nearly 40 years before he made the connection with the NASA stories of his youth and the technology developed by his company as an adult.
“We came up with the technology independently, but when we went through a patent search before production we found that NASA had done this in 1969,” he says. “It was very similar, and a patent was issued, which had long expired. So we built upon that and received our own patent. I was surprised that nobody decided to commercialize it for 40 years.”
NanoArk’s waferfiche has since been recognized as a valid archiving technology by the New York State Archives. It is being used in several Upstate New York town governments to archive records and most recently, RIT’s Registrar’s Office has transitioned some of its older student records to the technology. In 2006, the company preserved and digitally-restored the contents of the Sarvamoola Grantha, an ancient Hindu spiritual text that was more than 700 years old—and written on palm leaves.
“This technology was used to preserve something very important and very ancient, and it is meant for preservation for hundreds of years,” Mukund explains.
The wafer can hold more than 2,000 documents and through its metadata search function, users can easily find specific documents rather than have to scroll through the entire collection. There are also specific test functions to determine the quality of the particular waferfiche. And in the case of a natural disaster or flood, the wafer is fire and water-resistant.
Much of the manufacturing of the waferfiche is done at RIT’s Semiconductor and Microsystems Fabrication Laboratory. Having those ties to RIT has been a win-win relationship, Mukund adds. All his permanent employees are RIT graduates, and the company has provided multiple co-op opportunities for both engineering undergraduate and graduate students, as well as supported faculty research grants—opportunities he says that can influence this generation of student-researchers as much he was inspired by NASA’s earliest space technology.