CS/VFM Technology

New carbon-based storage/communications technology promises cheap, permanent archive and retrieval of text and graphics.
June 27, 2009, Chapel Hill, NC —  At first glance, Dr. Buli Safid’s lab on this quiet NC campus seems like the last place you’d expect find a game-changing innovation like CS/VFM.  There are no bubbling retorts, no oscilloscopes and most conspicuously, no computer screens.  But it is in these unassuming surroundings, strewn with sheets of the material he calls “vegetable fiber mat” that he and a small group of dedicated students have created the most important advance in information technology since Gutenberg.

Dr. Safid’s Carbon Stylus/Vegetable Fiber Mat (CS/VFM) technology promises to dramatically lower the cost, and increase the convinence of recording, storing and retrieving information.  “It requires no power, can be used anywhere, by anyone, and should last indefinitely once we have perfected the VFM component,” says Safid.  To demonstrate, he picks up a mat.  It’s about the size of a notebook computer, and so thin that it’s almost 2-dimensional.  It’s color is a dull white.  Placing it on the flat surface of his desk, Dr. Safid produces from his pocket one of the ubiquitous carbon styli that are strewn about the lab.  “The stylus was the hard part,” he says, “even our very first attempts at a stylus achieved real information storage, but the results couldn’t be read without special lighting.  The trick is for the stylus to shed little sheets of graphite, only a few atoms thick, onto the mat as it is drawn across it, using moderate pressure.”  He demonstrates, leaving a dark, even textured and very straight line that remains on the mat after he has withdrawn the stylus.  “I have had a lot of practice!” he exclaims.  “The carbon sheets adhere to the mat using molecular forces, but can be removed by vigorous rubbing with a soft polymer material.  The vegetable fiber mat can be made from virtually any fibrous plant material, including agricultural waste and small tress that were previously uneconomical to harvest.  We treat it to remove most of the starch and liberate the natural protiens, which we use as a binder.  It is a simple process that could be scaled up to provide almost unlimited storage at a cheap price.”   He then offered me the stylus, and I was able to use it to form the letters “MTC” in only a few seconds, but I wondered “What next?”  It’s one thing to record information, but quite another to store and then retrieve it, as needed.
“And this is our second great innovation,”  Dr. Safid held up one finger, as though saying “wait a moment and all will be clear.”  Grasping the vegetable fiber mat between thumb and forefinger – “this is the standard way to handle it,” he said – he moved the mat to the top of one of the piles that covered the top of his desk.  “We call this the  ‘Real Desktop’, because it is the real counterpart of the virtual desktop that all of us are familiar with.  And because we are already familiar with how to use a desktop, we already know how to use CS/VFM to store and retrieve documents.  The concept of the Pile is new, however, but you can think of it as an icon with layers.  And we also have folders…” He pulls open a drawer to reveal folded cardboard containers, colored to resemble the familiar file folders that we use in our computers.
It is at this point in his demonstration that most visitors get a little skeptical;  it’s hard to imagine anyone carrying a desk around with them,  and it wouldn’t take more than a stiff breeze, or a wayward cat,  to completely disorganize the stored information.  Dr. Safid admits that there are problems yet to be resolved. “But that’s why I’m in this business,” he says, “I don’t ever want to be finished…I want to always have new challenges to overcome.”
He has one more trick to show me.  He leads me over to a big red switch on the wall “This controls all the power for the lab,” he states,  before turning it off.  The room is completely dark and eerily silent, as various fans and motors wind down around the lab.  “Now where has your information gone?” he chides.  Then he walks to a window and, with a flourish, raises the blinds.   Light streams in.  Walking to the desktop, he holds up our mat and points to the information.  “See, he says, it’s still there.  For the foreseeable future.  For our Children.  For their children’s children.  This will be our legacy!