What is the “final frontier”? Star Trek fans will tell you it’s space. Filmmaker/aquanaut James Cameron will tell you it’s the ocean’s depths. IBM, however, is thinking much smaller.
The company’s research division on Wednesday released a stop-motion movie whose main character is a stick figure only a few atoms in size. “A Boy and His Atom” is the story, not surprisingly, of a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and proceeds to play with his new friend by dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline. It may not be an Oscar-winning script, but the performance does mark a breakthrough in scientists’ ability to capture, position and shape individual atoms with precision using temperature, pressure and vibrations.
“Think of this as Claymation—you shape your Wallace and Gromit, put them in your scene and take a picture of it,” says Andreas Heinrich, principle investigator at IBM Research. “Then you change the position of the characters and take another picture.” Heinrich and his team arranged and rearranged atoms to create 242 distinct frames later stitched together to make their movie, which Guinness World Records has certified as the tiniest stop-motion film ever made.
IBM researchers relied on a bit of movie magic to bring Atom to life (see video below). Each of the dots used to make the character is actually a molecule of carbon monoxide resting on a copper surface, framed so that the audience can see only the oxygen atoms (the carbon atoms are off screen). The researchers used a two-ton scanning tunneling microscope to magnify the atoms’ surfaces more than 100 million times. The microscope features an extremely sharp needle that the researchers used to move the molecules to specific locations.
This ability to manipulate individual atoms has big implications for the future of computing and communications. Engineers have managed to shrink certain components within today’s magnetic disk drives down to a few dozen nanometers. “We’re interested in exploring data movement and storage at the atomic scale,” the stuff of quantum computing, Heinrich says. Whereas a classic computer uses bits—a zero or a one—to store information, a quantum computer lets you—in principle at least—have a zero and a one at the same time in a quantum bit (or a qubit).” If you can do both of these at the same time, you can calculate answers faster than any computer using classic bits,” he says, adding that his lab’s mission is to determine whether atoms can someday be harnessed for computation and data storage.
IBM researchers decided to make their movie last year after publishing the results of years of atomic storage experiments, Heinrich says. “The general public should know about this kind of work and be interested in it,” he adds. “The best way to do that is to make a movie that is told in the language of science although doesn’t necessarily tell a scientific story. It tells a human story of a boy dancing with his friend.”