IBM's research arm has been playing with atoms in order to create what is officially the world's smallest stop-motion animation feature.

Dubbed 'A Boy and His Atom,' the animation combines 242 frames of action into a short advert for IBM's expertise in all things tiny - and does so by having a stick figure befriend a single atom. Oh, and the atom is real: in fact, everything in the animation is constructed from visible atoms, magnified 100 million times using a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to make the normally invisible building-blocks of matter visible.

Technically, the blobs that form the pixels of the animation aren't single atoms but molecules of carbon monoxide - a single carbon atom joined to a single oxygen atom. Using the STM and an ultra-sharp needle hovering just one nanometre from the surface of a copper plate, the team is able to attract the molecules and drag them to specific locations - using the unique sound they make to figure out how far the atoms have been moved.

It's not all about frivolity and the kudos that comes with an unlikely entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, though. 'Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,' boasted Andreas Heinrich, principle investigator at 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.'

IBM is hoping that the technology used to create the animation will pave the way forward for novel computer circuits that can bypass the rapidly-approaching physical limits that threaten to put an end to Moore's Law - the observation, made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, that the number of transistors in a circuit, and therefore its relative performance, doubles roughly every eighteen months. The team behind the animation has already created the world's smallest magnetic bit, constructed from just 12 atoms - compared to the million atoms a traditional bit takes up on a mechanical hard drive.

'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,' continued 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.'

The video is reproduced below, followed by a short making-of documentary that provides a glimpse at the team and technology behind the project.




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