Massive spin-off for tiny atom film

More than 100 years after Briton J Stuart Blackton made the first animated movie by drawing sketches on white paper, IBM Research has produced the smallest movie in the world, by creating pictures with atoms.

Computers have become faster and are able to store more data because the transistors used in them have grown smaller, but we have begun to reach the physical limits of how small transistors can be. This is why IBM Research started looking to atoms to store data.

“We can’t know in detail what those future technologies will be, but we can lay the scientific groundwork for them,” says Christopher Lutz, a scientist at IBM Research.

Just one minute long, A Boy and His Atom uses about 5 000 carbon monoxide molecules to create 242 frames that tell the story of a boy who falls in love with an atom. It has been certified by the Guinness World Records as the smallest film.

“To make this animation, we move molecules around one at a time to draw a little picture and we save that picture and move on to the next frame to start to tell a story,” Lutz says.

Moving atoms is one thing, says principal investigator Andreas Heinrich. “You can do that with a wave of your hand. Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic level is a precise science and entirely novel.”

In a room cooled to less than -260°C so that all the energy is removed from the atoms and they stay still, the atoms were moved using a scanning tunnelling microscope, which magnifies the focus area 100-million times.

Deluge of data
Although making a movie out of atoms may seem rather frivolous, there is scientific inquiry driving it. “We have a tool that allows us to move atoms on surfaces and build structures one atom at a time … We want to explore how we can use atoms on surfaces to do computation and data storage,” Heinrich says.

The same IBM Research team has created the first magnetic bit using atoms. A bit of storage in a traditional computing system uses about one million atoms, Lutz says.“We’ve been interested in the magnetic properties of atoms on surfaces, and really what we wanted to answer … [was] how small can you make a magnet and still use it for data storage,” Heinrich says. Last year, they found the answer: 12 atoms.

There is hope that this tiny computing device will become a way of dealing with the deluge of data being generated around the world.

“Every day, we create 2.5-quintillion bytes of data – so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years alone,” IBM says, citing climate information sensors, social media, purchase transactions and cellphone GPS signals as a few examples of major data generation sources.

The €2-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s largest telescope, will exacerbate the big data challenges. The technology does not yet exist to process the raw data that the gigantic telescope – comprising more than 3000 dishes – will create. It was announced last year that South Africa and Australia would share the telescope, which will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect radio signals from the beginnings of the universe. IBM is one of SKA’s industry partners.

SKA South Africa project director Bernie Fanaroff has said that the SKA will create more raw data in one day than humankind has created in its history. The ability to process this data is seen as one of the major ­spin-offs of what will be the largest scientific experiment on Earth.

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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