Modern computer storage would be dwarfed by the new devices
Tiny crystals could hold the key to creating computers with massive storage capacity, scientists believe.
The crystals could be used as storage devices for desktop computers capable of holding 100-times more data than current systems.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have been using low-energy lasers to make salt crystals in gel.
The development could allow users to store a terabyte of data in a space the size of a sugar cube within a decade.
This would be enough to hold the equivalent of 250,000 photographs or a million books.
Many scientists regard making crystals as a black art, as the process of producing solid crystals from salt in solution is difficult to control.
It requires a critical mass of molecules gathered at one place, which is difficult to trigger and regulate.
The researchers overcame this difficulty by focusing two overlapping low-energy laser beams on a salt solution, providing exactly the right amount of energy to form a temporary crystal.
Dr Andy Alexander, of the university's school of chemistry, who developed the technique, said it could be used to improve on traditional methods of optical data storage, such as CDs.
Compared with the flat two-dimensional surface of a CD, three-dimensional optical data storage uses many more layers, in which tiny crystals could act as storage points.
Information would be recorded in a similar way as on CDs - by making marks in a pattern, which are read using light.
Such devices, which could be available within 10 years, would enable users to store, access and move around massive amounts of information easily.
Dr Alexander said: "This research builds on a discovery that was made by accident many years ago, when it was found that light can be used to trigger crystal formation.
"We have refined this technique and now we can create crystals on demand. There is much work to be done before these crystals can be used in practical applications such as optical storage, but we believe they have significant potential."