Anyone who’s tried their hand at stop animation will know it’s an incredibly time consuming and delicate job. But spare a thought for scientists at IBM Almaden in California who have produced the world’s smallest stop animation movie by using a scanning tunneling microscope to move individual atoms. Rather than competing with Aardman or Pixar for a slice of the international box office, the film is intended to make the public aware of new technology that could increase computer memories far beyond what is possible today.

The movie, entitled A Boy and His Atom, was made by precisely placing atoms to form 242 stop-motion frames that were used to create the animation. It is about a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and goes on a playful journey that includes dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline. It’s not exactly riveting cinema, but that’s not the point.


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“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, Principal Investigator, 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.”

Developed in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zürich, the scanning tunneling microscope is based on the principle of quantum tunneling, which is an eye-wateringly confusing concept. Suffice it to say, it works on the fact that in quantum mechanics an electron is only “sort of” in any one place at any one time and may be somewhere else. This allows them to do things that should be impossible, like being on one side of an impenetrable barrier or gap and then show up on the other. It’s as if the electron just tunneled its way through, and hence the term “quantum tunneling.”

A scanning tunneling microscope exploits this by means of a piezoelectric scanning device with a probe attached ending in an atom-sharp needle tip. The tip is given an electric charge and moves rapidly across the surface of a sample. If it encounters an atom, the quantum tunneling effect causes electrons to flow between the tip and the atom. A computer can study this flow and calculate the position of the atom, allowing an atom by atom image of the sample to be built up. Needless to say, this is a very delicate operation that needs to be done under strictly controlled conditions and at extremely low temperatures to keep thermal forces from overwhelming everything.

“This Nobel Prize winning tool was the first device that enabled scientists to visualize the world all the way down to single atoms,” said Christopher Lutz, Research Scientist, IBM Research. “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.”

It’s in moving atoms that the team at IBM Almaden have made their innovation. The interaction between the probe and the atom is the same that controls chemical reactions. In other words, what makes one atom stick to another. This allows the scanning tunneling microscope to be used as a sort of quantum crane to pick up atoms and move them to exactly where the scientists want them to go.

For making the movie, they used a copper surface with the probe hovering one nanometer away. Atoms were picked up and arranged on the surface using a rather clever positioning method with the scientists listening to the atoms move. Since the microscope can’t move atoms and make images at the same time, the machine was designed to generate feedback noise as the atom moved, so the scientists would know when it shifts from one spot to the next. In this way, the atoms could be repositioned to build up the frames and create the animation.

The end of Moore's Law

However, the purpose of all this is more than to make heartwarming fables about little boys and their pet atoms. It’s to draw attention to IBM’s work on overcoming an impending barrier to computer development known as the end of Moore’s law. Named after its discoverer, Gordon E. Moore, Moore’s law describes how integrated circuit transistor density doubles roughly every two years. According to the IBM team, there will come a point where Moore’s law will inevitably come to an end as computer circuits approach atomic dimensions.

With this in mind, IBM is taking the ultimate in bottom-up approaches. It takes about one million atoms to store a bit of data is a modern computer, so there’s still a way to go before the practical limits are reached, but the IBM team’s idea is to start with single atoms and build them up until practical computer components can be constructed.

So far, IBM has managed to build the smallest magnetic data storage unit consisting of only 12 atoms and the team claims that if an atomic memory could be made practical, a mobile phone that today can hold only one or two movies could store every film ever produced in history – never mind how many books or hours of music.

“Research means asking questions beyond those required to find good short-term engineering solutions to problems. As data creation and consumption continue to get bigger, data storage needs to get smaller, all the way down to the atomic level,” said Heinrich. “We’re applying the same techniques used to come up with new computing architectures and alternative ways to store data to making this movie.”

Confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest movie, the irony is that this record may never be surpassed because when you get below the atomic level, quantum effects start to dominate and the the whole concept of vision pretty much breaks down.

You can check out ”A Boy and His Atom” below.

Source: IBM

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