‘World’s smallest movie’ created using atoms

1 May 2013
By Edd Gent
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A still from the movie

A still from the movie "A Boy and His Atom" created by IBM researchers using a scanning tunneling microscope

Scientists from IBM have unveiled the world’s smallest movie, made by manipulating atoms.

"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.

To make the movie thousands of precisely placed atoms were moved with a scanning tunnelling microscope, invented by IBM, to create nearly 250 frames of stop-motion action.

The Guinness World Records has certified the film as the "World's Smallest Stop Motion Film."

“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 for IBM Research.

“At IBM, researchers don’t just read about science, we do it. 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 math and science.”

The IBM researchers moved the atoms by remotely controlling the microscope to control a super-sharp needle just 1 nanometre above a copper surface to physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and pull them to precise locations on the surface.

As the movie was being created, the scientists rendered still images of the individually arranged atoms, resulting in 242 single frames.

“This Nobel Prize winning tool was the first device that enabled scientists to visualize the world all the way down to single atoms,” says Christopher Lutz, research scientist at IBM Research.

“It weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times. The ability to control the temperature, pressure and vibrations at exact levels makes our IBM Research lab one of the few places in the world where atoms can be moved with such precision.”

The same team of IBM researchers who made the movie have been working on engineering data storage devices at the atomic scale and recently created the world's smallest magnetic bit.

The team were the first to discover how many atoms it takes to reliably store one bit of magnetic information – 12, compared to roughly 1 million atoms on a modern computer or electronic device.

If commercialized, they say this atomic memory could one day store all of the movies ever made in a device the size of a fingernail.

“Research means asking questions beyond those required to find good short-term engineering solutions to problems. As data creation and consumption continue to get bigger, data storage needs to get smaller, all the way down to the atomic level,” adds Heinrich.

“We’re applying the same techniques used to come up with new computing architectures and alternative ways to store data to making this movie.”

A video about the making of the movie is available here.

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