Super-clear tape is the ‘new CD’

Could this humble roll of tape could become the successor of the CD-ROM? An engineer at the University of Mannheim, Steffen Noethe, thinks it might be.

When the German sticky tape company Tesa launched its Multi-Film tape, the idea was to create a little roll of transparent adhesive tape that would sit in your desk drawer for those everday sticking-things-together moments – an alternative to Sellotape, Scotch, or whatever.

However, Multi-Film was also designed to be particularly transparent, so the roll would look crystal clear – without that yellowish tint that you might spot with its rivals.

A good marketing idea, you may think, but not very high tech. However, the extreme transparency of the tape has given it an unexpected physical quality – something that could one day lead to a breakthrough, not in sticking things together, but in data storage. In fact, this humble roll of tape could become the successor of the CD-ROM.

An engineer at the University of Mannheim, Steffen Noethe, had been researching the use of alternative materials on which a laser could burn holograms that could serve as digital data stores which could, in turn, be read again by a laser beam (as happens with a CD). Eventually, after many tests on different kinds of polymers, one of his research team ‘just for a joke’ took a roll of Multi-Film sticky tape from a desk and installed it in the test rig. The results were unexpected.

A new roll of this sticky tape contains around 100 layers. Noethe’s team fixed the roll on its side, and installed a small rotating laser drive in the roll’s core. They discovered that data could be burnt, point by point and with great accuracy, into any of these 100 layers and at any point across the width of the tape, without having to unroll it.

The big advantage, compared with a standard CD, is capacity. Although it is smaller, it can store much more data – perhaps the equivalent of 15 CD-ROMs. The rolls are typically 10m long and 19mm wide, which is enough space to hold around 10 gigabytes of information.

The laser power required to burn the information into the tape is low: around 1mW, the equivalent of a laser pointer. This makes it suitable for battery-powered applications, such as pocket computers, or as the memory for digital video cameras.The research project, called OptiMem, and led by Noethe, is being run by the European Media Laboratory in Heidelberg, with colleagues from the University of Mannheim’s institute of computer science. Beiersdorf, the company which makes Tesa tape, is also backing the project, and is understood to be looking at ways of optimising the design of its adhesive tapes to make them even more suitable for data storage.

The adhesive element itself is important. The fact that each layer is self adhesive actually helps to make the tape even less opaque. However, the design needs to ensure that the rolls of tape don’t deform – or start to yellow – with age. And there is also a possibility that these kinds of tapes could be ‘printed’ with data at the time of their manufacture – before they are rolled up.

If the system is proven, this could be the start of the next generation of storage media.

But don’t hold your breath. The project team believes getting the idea into production could still take a further five years.