What you’re about to watch here is the smallest stop-motion movie ever made. Called “A Boy and His Atom,” the one-minute clip was compiled by manipulating a few dozen carbon atoms on a copper surface.
We’re having a hard time getting our heads around just how astoundingly small the scale is, here. Each frame of the IBM video measures a paltry 45 x 25 nanometers. A single inch measures 25 million nanometers across. Putting that into perspective, one nanometer is a thousandth of a thousandth of the size of a piece of rice. So, it would take about 1,000 frames of the film laid side-by-side to extend across a single human hair. Needless to say, this video is HUGELY magnified.
In light of the achievement, Guinness World Records has certified the 250 frame film as the “Smallest Stop-Motion Film.” The project showcases IBM’s efforts to design advanced data storage solutions based on single atoms.
IBM did it by moving atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The computer-controlled device weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of -268 degrees Celsius (to make the atoms hold still), and magnifies surfaces over 100 million times. The microscope allows scientists to control temperature, pressure, and vibrations at extremely exact levels, thus making it possible to move atoms with great precision.
When making the stop-motion film, the researchers used the STM to control a super-sharp electrically charged needle along a copper surface. The needle was positioned a mere one nanometer away from the surface, from where it could physically pull atoms and molecules to an exact location. At such a close distance to the surface, the charge can “jump the gap” — an effect in quantum physics called tunnelling.
Interestingly, the atoms made a unique sound when they were moved, allowing the scientists to know how many positions they actually moved.
As the process moved along, the researchers rendered still images of the individually arranged atoms, creating the remarkable 242 frame movie. It took the IBM team two weeks of 18-hour days to complete.
“This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world,” said IBM’s Andreas Heinrich. “The reason we made this was not to convey a scientific message directly, but to engage with students, to prompt them to ask questions.”