High concept

Like the inscribed stone tablet it was named after, Norsam Technologies' High Density Rosetta disc can preserve information for thousands of years. But unlike the Rosetta Stone, whose discovery, in 1799, enabled scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, the two-inch-square nickel-coated disc is a light, compact medium that can accommodate up to 200,000 pages of analog information.

The storage capacity is so vast because the data are so minute: teeny tiny reproductions of text and images are etched onto the disc, pixel by pixel, using a focused-ion-beam machine at Norsam's service bureau, in Los Alamos, N. Mex. Retrieving the information requires a simple magnifying lens -- an optical microscope when the inscriptions are on the large side (that is, when just 18,000 pages of information are inscribed on a disc), and an electron microscope when they're particularly fine.

Norsam, which is based in Hillsboro, Oreg., is the brainchild of John Bishop, who founded the company in 1995 to bring the ion-beam-etching technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory to the public. Today libraries see the HD Rosetta as an archiving tool. The U.S. government has asked about its security applications. The New York Times buried a disc containing the millennium edition of its magazine in its "Times Capsule," and several organizations have inquired about sending the discs into space. Jewelry manufacturers, meanwhile, are etching microscopic identifying marks on gems using the technology -- the colorless inscriptions don't affect a diamond's fire. More prosaic applications include micromachining and inspecting tiny circuits.

"We are a $3-million company with 10 employees," says Bishop. "But we are growing as surely as society's interest in the very small is growing."



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