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IBM team uses atoms to create world's tiniest stop-motion movie

May 01, 2013|By Deborah Netburn | This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Talk about some tiny pixels: Researchers at IBM have created the world's tiniest stop-motion animation film by using single atoms to tell the story of a boy named Atom and his friend, an atom.

The story is cute — Atom and his friend dance together, jump together, get separated and then reunite — but you will watch it in awe because each of the 242 frames has been magnified more than 100 million times, and what you are really seeing are scientists manipulating one of the squeensiest elements in the universe.

To move the atoms around, the scientists used a scanning tunneling microscope, the same piece of equipment they use to image atoms. Because atoms are so tiny, you cannot see them using a regular light microscope, so instead researchers view them by tracing their electric current with a very tiny and sharp needle.

That needle can also be used to move the atoms on a surface by coming just close enough to the atom to form a chemical bond that lets the atom follow the tip of the needle across a copper surface. When the atom is in the right spot, the needle pulls gently away and the atom remains in its new location.

After all the atoms in the frame are in the correct spot, the researchers use the same needle to take a "picture" of the whole frame.

All this is very sensitive work. The scanning tunneling microscope operates at the very cool temperature of minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the atoms are being moved around, there can be no people, light or sound in the room.

The atoms do make a scratchy sound when they are being dragged across the copper surface, and this helped researchers make sure the atoms were in the right spot.

A spokesman for IBM told the Los Angeles Times that it took four scientists with decades of experience with atoms two weeks of 18-hour days to create the film.

Of course, scientists at IBM are not really in the business of making microscopic movies. Rather, they are in the business of trying to create ever smaller data storage options.

The team that created this movie is the same team that recently discovered that it takes just 12 atoms to reliably store one bit of magnetic information.

"We're applying the same techniques used to come up with new computing architectures and alternative ways to store data to making this movie," said Andreas Heinrich, an IBM principal investigator who worked on the movie project.

[For the Record, 2:45 p.m., May 1: An earlier version of this post specified that the size of each frame in the film was 25 nanometers by 45 nanometers. It has been removed from the post.]

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