The WOW Files: Watch IBM’s Stop-Motion Short Film “A Boy And His Atom” Using Atoms As Pixels

by • May 2, 2013 • Movies, Photography, Physics, ScienceComments (0)4876

It took four scientists at IBM Research ten days, working 18-hour-long shifts each day, to create what the Guinness World Records has awarded as the “World’s Smallest Stop-Motion Film”.  Entitled A Boy And His Atom, the IBM team created this 242-frame film by moving atoms, one at a time, across a copper surface.

The state of the art machinery and equipment needed for this technology is as impressive as the film itself.  Principle Investigator Andreas Heinrich and his team used a 2-ton scanning tunneling microscope, cooled down to a frigid -450 degrees Fahreinheit (-267.78 Celsius, just a few degrees short of Absolut Zero, the coldest temperature possible, which is -273.15 Celsius).  The image created is magnified by the scanning tunneling microscope about 100 million times.  Popular Science writes: “The scanning tunneling microscope isn’t an optical microscope.  A robot arm moves a tiny needle (its tip is a single atom) across the copper surface in a scanning pattern, ‘like an old-fashioned TV tube,’ Heinrich explains.  The needle is programmed to stay a certain distance away from the surface, so when it encounters an atom, it pulls up and creates a bump in the image.  To move an atom, the researchers lower the needle to push or pull it to a new position on the copper surface.  Each of the ball-bearing-like dots in the movie is actually made of two atoms, which form single carbon monoxide molecules.  The ripples that appear around them are a result of free-floating electrons trapped in the ultra-smooth copper surface.  ‘If you disturb the 2-D electron gas surface by moving atoms on it, you see ripples,’ Heinrich says.  ‘These electrons are free, like atoms in a gas, except they are stuck on the surface.'”

Just last year the same IBM research team successfully created the world’s smallest memory bit which is capable of storing data using only 12 atoms.  Business Insider writes: “Currently it takes 1 million atoms to store a bit of data, but these 12-atom magnets can store the same amount of information in a much smaller space.  This breakthrough ‘has the potential to make our computers and devices smaller and more powerful, but also holds enormous implications for the way entire industries operate.”  You can read more about A Boy And His Atom,  and IBM’s extraordinary atomic research by visiting

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AtomBoy1AtomBoy2AtomBoy3Sources: Popular Science and Business Insider

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