WASHINGTON — Humanity generates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data -- enough to max out the storage capacity of about 40 million iPhones -- every day. Much of it gets stored “in the cloud,” meaning it’s saved in sprawling, frigid data centers.
Unfortunately, these data centers are contributing to the destruction of the environment. They account for as much as 1.5% of the world’s total annual electricity consumption -- and are responsible for emitting more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, on par with the annual emissions from all commercial air travel in the entire United States.
And with the total quantity of data created doubling every two years, the problem is poised to get much worse. To keep pace with how much data we’re creating, the entire surface of the planet would need to be covered with data storage centers by 2060.
Many companies and environmentalists have long recognized the ecological harm of our data-storage addiction. Data centers use a staggering volume of water, about 3-5 million gallons per day. That’s enough for a small city of 30,000-50,000 people, according to Texas Tech University professor Venkatesh Uddameri.
They also demand large amounts of rare earth minerals to construct their hardware. The mining process to extract those minerals is notoriously awful for the environment.
Companies can make these data centers less damaging -- but they can’t actually make them green. And the world’s voracious appetite for data is quickly canceling out any marginal improvements. For example, data centers are on track to account for 14% of all global emissions by 2040. That’s equivalent to what the entire United States currently emits.
The real solution lies in completely rethinking how we store data.
Instead of storing it electronically, scientists are optimistic that we could soon encode data into strands of DNA, a vastly more powerful medium, on a massive scale.
DNA is orders of magnitude more efficient at storing information than any existing method. A single gram of DNA can store up to 215 million gigabytes of information; that’s equivalent to roughly 10 million copies of the entirety of Wikipedia. In theory, if DNA were used to its full potential, all of the world’s data could be stored in the bed of a semi-truck.
At Twist Bioscience, the company I lead, we developed a transformational process to “write” data onto small silicon chips using DNA. Our scientists recently stored a Netflix original series in synthetic DNA. And more recently, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in collaboration with our team, discovered a way to increase the efficiency of current DNA data storage methods by a factor of 100.
Unlike servers in data centers, DNA-based storage methods are environmentally friendly. Once the information is converted into DNA, it consumes zero energy. That data also lasts much longer; while conventional magnetic hard drives wear out and need to be replaced every decade or so, data that’s been encoded in DNA could theoretically last for more than 500,000 years.
Our civilization is producing more data than ever. Without new approaches, data storage threatens to worsen environmental crises and spawn new ones. And with hundreds of millions of new internet users added every year, the urgency couldn’t be greater. Approaches like DNA-based storage can help leverage the full promise and potential of the Information Age without sacrificing the planet’s health.
Emily Leproust is CEO and co-founder of Twist Bioscience. This piece originally ran in RealClearScience.