IBM uses atoms to make ‘world’s smallest movie’

IBM scientists have unveiled what they called “the world’s smallest movie,” which tracks the movement of atoms magnified 100 million times.

The film, A Boy and His Atom, depicts a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and follows him on a journey of dancing and bouncing that helps explain the science behind data storage.

Each frame measures 45 by 25 nanometers — there are 25 million nanometers in an inch — but hugely magnified.

“Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” said Andreas Heinrich, a scientist at 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.”

To make the movie, the atoms were moved with an IBM-invented scanning tunnelling microscope, a device which earned its inventors a Nobel Prize.

The tool “was the first device that enabled scientists to visualise the world all the way down to single atoms,” said IBM researcher Christopher Lutz.

“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 movie was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Smallest Stop Motion Film,” IBM said.

The film used a microscope to control a super-sharp needle along a copper surface to attract atoms and molecules and pull them to a precisely specified location on the surface.

IBM said this kind of science is needed to help improve computer data storage as tech firms run into physical limitations using traditional techniques.

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


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