'A Boy and His Atom': IBM Makes World's Smallest Movie
Forget big movie stars. The leading man in IBM's new animated film, "A Boy and His Atom," is only 1/25,000,000 of an inch tall.
IBM's tiny movie- which made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the The World's Smallest Stop-Motion Film- is the tale of a microscopic boy and his favorite playmate, an irresistibly bouncy atom.
The film was created by nanophysicists at IBM, who used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to make tiny drawings of their lead character.
The STM functions like a needle, dragging carbon monoxide (CO) atoms across the surface of a copper plate using a magnetic force. To create individual frames, the physicists drew a picture with the atoms, saved the frame using the STM and then repositioned the atoms to continue the story.
It's easy to forget, while watching the film, just how much work must have gone into creating each frame. In order for the scientists to even see the atoms they were manipulating, they had to magnify them over 100 million times.
And the materials the physicists worked with had to be chosen very carefully. They selected the copper plate and the CO molecules because together these materials created the most stable environment for moving atoms.
Of course, the nanophysicists' experimentations with atoms didn't begin with this recent foray into film. Researchers at IBM are actually studying the magnetic properties of atoms on surfaces in order to create a microscopic magnet used for data storage. This side project was just their geeky way of letting off steam. [See also: What is the Future of Computers?]
The work of IBM nanopyhysicists is exciting for anyone who wants to see faster computers with bigger memories in the future. Today's computers require about one million atoms to store a single bit of data. But in 2012, IBM announced that it could produce a magnetic memory bit made from just 12 atoms.
Atomic-scale memory is just one solution to a persistent problem facing physicists: how to make computers more powerful without making them any bigger. Spintronics is another field trying to provide innovative solutions to this problem.