IBM Research makes world’s smallest movie using atoms

Scientists from IBM today unveiled the world’s smallest movie, made with one of the tiniest elements in the universe: atoms. Named "A Boy and His Atom," the Guinness World Records -verified movie used thousands of precisely placed atoms to create nearly 250 frames of stop-motion action.

"A Boy and His Atom" depicts a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and goes on a playful journey that includes dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline. Set to a playful musical track, the movie represents a unique way to convey science outside the research community.

Today, it takes roughly one million atoms to store a single bit of data on a computer or electronic device. A bit is the basic unit of information in computing that can have only one of two values, one or zero. Eight bits form a byte. In 2012, IBM Research announced it can now store that same bit of information in just 12 atoms with the creation of the world’s smallest magnetic memory bit. The movie starts with 12 atoms to celebrate the breakthrough by IBM scientists of successfully using 12 atoms to store one bit of data — in our current technology, it takes 1,000,000 atoms to store one bit of data. This breakthrough could transform computing by providing the world with devices that have access to unprecedented levels of data storage, potentially making our computers and devices smaller and more powerful.

But even nanophysicists need to have a little fun. In that spirit, the scientists moved atoms by using their scanning tunneling microscope to make their movie. The ability to move single atoms, one of the smallest particles of any element in the universe, is crucial to IBM’s research in the field of atomic-scale memory.

For now, the 12-atom bit memory lives in a lab. How to make such small bits commercially viable is the big question in the field of nanotechnology. This technology is probably 10 to 30 years in the future, IBM officials say.

The world’s smallest movie set

The scanning tunneling microscope (STM):
One way to look at the STM is as a needle that drags atoms across a surface using magnetism. But behind that needle is a room full of equipment, all there to control the environment to a spectacular degree. The development of the STM by IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986.

Copper plate:
The scientists used copper 111 as the surface of the animation — the same material they used 10 years ago when they built the first computer that performed digital computation operations.

Carbon monoxide (CO):
The scientists chose carbon monoxide atoms to move around the plate. Carbon monoxide has one carbon atom and one oxygen atom, stacked on top of each other,

Viewers may notice little ripples around the atoms as they watch the movie. Those waves are a disturbance in the electron density in the copper atoms on a copper plate. When a carbon monoxide molecule comes close to the plate, the electrons in the copper atoms are displaced. Because they can’t escape the surface of the copper, they protrude (similar to the way water ripples — but doesn’t break the surface — when you throw a rock into a lake). The scientists used copper because that element, in combination with carbon monoxide, produced the most stable atoms for moving.

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