Scientists from computer giants IBM have created the world’s smallest movie, made with one of the tiniest elements in the universe: the atom.
The record-breaking film is called ‘A boy and his atom’ and uses thousands of precisely placed atoms to create nearly 250 frames of stop-motion action.
The movie’s simple yet charming narrative revolves around a character named Atom who befriends a single atom before going on a fun-filled journey that takes in dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline, all set to a playful musical track.
In order to make the movie, carbon monoxide molecules were manipulated into position using scanning tunneling microscope, a Nobel Prize winning invention and the first device ever to enable scientists to visualise (and manipulate) the nanoscopic world of single atoms.
The microscope weighs two tonnes, operates at a temperature of minus 268°C (minus 450° F) and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times enabling the molecules to be moved with incredible precision.
The microscope was used to control a super-sharp copper needle that positioned the carbon monoxide molecules on a copper substrate.
Only 1 nanometre – a billionth of a metre – away from the surface, the needle can physically attract atoms and molecules and pull them to a precisely specified location on the copper.
The moving molecules make a unique sound that is critical feedback in determining how many positions it has actually moved.
When photographed by the scanning tunneling microscope, the oxygen atoms of each molecule show up as a dot and these allow the creation of images composed of many dots. The scientists then rendered these still images of the individually arranged atoms to create 242 single frames.
“Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” says Andreas Heinrich, Principle Investigator, IBM Research.
“This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world while opening up a dialogue with students and others on the new frontiers of maths and science.”
Developing the world’s smallest movie is not entirely new ground for IBM, now 101 years old. For decades, their research boffins have studied materials at the nanoscale to explore the limits of data storage.
As computer circuits shrink toward atomic dimensions, chip designers are running into physical limitations using traditional techniques.
The exploration of unconventional methods of magnetism and the properties of atoms on well-controlled surfaces allows for entirely new computing paths to be identified.
Using the smallest object available for engineering data storage devices – single atoms – the same team of IBM researchers who made this movie also recently created the world's smallest magnetic bit.
They were the first to answer the question of how many atoms it takes to reliably store one bit of magnetic information: 12. By comparison, it takes roughly 1 million atoms to store a bit of data on a modern computer or electronic device.
If commercialised, this atomic memory could one day store all of the movies ever made on a device the size of a fingernail!
For more information, please click www.research.ibm.com/articles/madewithatoms.