After a conversation with Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired magazine and a board member of the Long Now Foundation, Mod shifted his focus. He connected with John Bishop at Norsam, a company that uses focused ion beam (FIB) technology to sharpen diamond probes, inscribe materials, and microprint onto nickel. Long Now’s Rosetta Project worked with Norsam to create the first iteration of the Rosetta Disk, a three-inch diameter plate with 13,000 pages of text describing 1,500 languages.
LANL came up with the technique Norsam licenses as a way to preserve data “in case there was some kind of above-ground nuclear blast that eliminated digital files.” In Norsam’s version of the technique, the FIB shoots gallium ions at a silicon substrate coated in a material (a “resist”) that can be removed in a chemical bath; a similar process is used in mass producing computer chips. The gallium ions create exceedingly fine detail—the beam size is 7 nanometers—which are removed when the resist is put in a developing bath.
The next stage uses electroforming, to create a “father” disk made of nickel from the master. The master is “sacrificed” in this process, and father is left with raised nickel deposits roughly 100 nanometers high . The father, in turn, creates “mothers,” which are reverse image recessed duplicates. Those can be the final product, but because for large runs that would prematurely degrade the father, each mother can be used to produce multiple “sons” as the end result. Bishop says his fee works out to roughly a dollar a page, plus $1,000 for a father plate, and $500 for a mother.
This technique isn’t ideal for reproducing photography, however. Bishop says he has about 4,000 pixels square to render the equivalent of an 8.5-by-11-inch source image, which is roughly 300 dots per inch, regardless of miniaturization. Grayscale and color tonal values have to be converted to relatively coarse dithering or halftones. That’s similar to the quality of photographic reproduction in newspapers a few decades ago or in early laser-printer output. (A much slower, and thus more expensive, process can render the equivalent of tones.)
Electroformed nickel is known to be highly resilient. In 1999, Bishop commissioned LANL to give an estimate of how long his technique would remain legible under adverse conditions, such as in a fire or immersed in salt water. The lab couldn’t put a precise point on it, but even in extreme cases, the plates should survive hundreds of years. In the best? Bishop suggests a range of 2,000 to 10,000 years.
Concerns more ordinary than longevity do arise, however. Laura Welcher, the head of the Rosetta Project at the Long Now Foundation, says nickel is very easily scratched, and when left out in the open, the plates get grungy. Nickel can also cause a contact skin reaction in some people, among them Dr. Welcher. To combat these risks, the foundation created a holder for the dozen nickel plates it printed: a presentation globe with one hemisphere of glass, with a small magnification effect, and the other of stainless steel. Dr. Welcher is working with the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to find a more straightforward way to protect the nickel. One strategy under consideration is to coat it with a layer of titanium so thin that it’s transparent. It would be “a tough outer layer to prevent scratches; it would still get dirty, but you could clean it,” she explains.