IBM smashes the atom record

Scientists from IBM have created the world’s smallest film, made with thousands of atoms.

Approved by the Guinness World of Records, the film, aptly named “A Boy and His Atom,” uses thousands of precisely placed atoms to create nearly 250 frames of stop-motion action.

It’s a story 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. Set to a musical track, the film is said to represent a unique way to convey science outside the research community.  

In order to make the film the atoms were moved with an IBM-made scanning tunnelling microscope, which lets scientists visualise the world all the way down to single atoms.

IBM said it weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times.

Remotely operated on a standard computer, IBM researchers used the microscope to control a super-sharp needle along a copper surface to “feel” atoms. Only one nanometer away from the surface, which is a billionth of a meter in distance, the needle can physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and thus pull them to a precisely specified location on the surface. The moving atom makes a unique sound that is critical feedback in determining how many positions it has actually moved.  

As the movie was being created, the scientists rendered still images of the individually arranged atoms, resulting in 242 single frames.

IBM said that, for decades, scientists have have studied materials at the nanoscale to explore the limits of data storage, among other things.

Using the smallest object available for engineering data storage devices – single atoms – the same team of IBM researchers who made the film also recently created the world’s smallest magnetic bit. They were the first to answer the question of how many atoms it takes to reliably store one bit of magnetic information: 12.