The World’s Smallest Movie

IBM’s hopes that their new video animation, A Boy and his Atom, which was made by painstakingly moving individual atoms on a microscopic surface to create simple images of a boy and his world, will inspire young people everywhere to study science and to seek careers in science and technology. The film is just over 60 seconds long and made of 242 individual stop-motion frames, with each frame being roughly 50 atoms wide. So you have some idea of this truly minute scale, a human hair is about 1,000,000 atoms wide. If IBM so wished, it could convert A Boy And His Atom into a feature film, and still fit the frames within the width of a human hair. The movie can only be seen when it is magnified 100 million times.

A Boy and His Atom movie still from IBM Almaden
A Boy and His Atom movie still from IBM Almaden

To see both the animated movie and more videos about how the movie was made go to:  http://tinyurl.com/ckaekg3

Working with artists and animators, the team of nanophysicists at IBM’s Almaden lab put 10,000 atoms in place in a 10-day work marathon. The equipment used was a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which operates at just above absolute zero (-450F, -268 Celsius).

STM - scanning tunneling microscope used at IBM Almaden
STM – scanning tunneling microscope used at IBM Almaden

The microscope works by moving a sharp metal needle – a copper-tipped iridium wire. The tip of the needle acts as both man’s eyes and hands. It senses the atoms to make images of where the atoms are located, and when it is moved closer to the atoms it tugs them along the surface of a copper sheet to new positions.

The needle is moved around by attaching it to three electrically charged crystals, which are little blocks of ceramic material that slightly change their size when a voltage is applied to them.  Changing the electrical voltages makes the charged crystals move, which then makes the needle move pulling the atoms into new places.  The charge “jumps the gap” in a quantum physics effect called tunneling.  This action makes a sound, which provides feedback to the team.

Graphic illustration of how the STM needle moves atoms around a copper surface.  Photo courtesy IBM
Graphic illustration of how the STM needle moves atoms around a copper surface. Photo courtesy IBM

Each frame in the film is a computer-synthesized image that measures where the needle feels a “bump” of carbon monoxide molecules on top of the tightly honeycombed copper surface – magnified about 100 million times.  Here is a look at the computer used to view the animation frames:

Computer used 8676927038_de2ab06c3e_o

Movie still showing Atom testing a trampoline.  Credit: IBM Almaden
Movie still showing Atom testing a trampoline. Credit: IBM Almaden

Besides having fun making the smallest stop-motion movie ever, the IBM team proved that a bit of data can be stored on a mere 12 extremely cold iron atoms compared to the million atoms a traditional bit takes up on a mechanical hard drive. This kind of density would be the size of a thumbnail and could store every movie ever made.  Experiments in nanotechnology like this will be what keeps computer power – and storage – on pace to double every two years, and perhaps well beyond that. 

Live Long and Prosper symbol made by IBM STM.
Live Long and Prosper symbol made by IBM STM.
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