IBM uses individual molecules to make smallest movie ever

Credit: IBM Research

Atoms are more or less the smallest physical objects that we can directly experience. Yes, technically many things are smaller than atoms (electrons, protons, and so forth), but once you get past the atom, you go from things that are physical to things that are more the embodiment of some abstract concept in high energy physics. With atoms, though, if you happen to be as clever as the researchers at IBM, you can actually pick up one single atom or molecule and do stuff with it. All sorts of stuff. Heck, you can even get a bunch of molecules together and make the smallest movie that has ever (or will ever) exist. And here it is, A Boy and His Atom:

Each one of the dots (think of them as pixels if you like) is one carbon monoxide molecule (one carbon atom and one oxygen atom), on top of a surface of copper. With a scanning tunneling electron microscope, the IBM researchers moved all those atoms by hand, one at a time, to create 242 individual frame of animation, seen at more than 100 million times their actual size. Here’s how they made it:

Did you catch that? IBM has made magnets that are useful for data storage out of just twelve atoms. With storage like that, instead of just carrying around like two movies on your iPhone, you could instead carry around every movie that’s ever been produced. So, that’s why IBM is playing around with atoms on this scale, but why are they making a movie out of it? Simple: it’s cool. And it doesn’t take any background in science at all to see that it’s cool, and understand why it’s cool.



We spoke with Andreas Heinrich, the principle investigator on this project at IBM Research, to learn more about where the movie idea came from, why IBM is excited about it, and just how mind-bendingly impossible it was to create each frame of video:

Why did you want to make this movie?

This is the first time that anybody has told a story at this small scale. We on purpose didn’t want to make a movie that portrayed some scientific text or something like that. We wanted to get people attracted to science who are not usually interested in it. What you can do is combine the art and the science together, to get people interested, and to get them to ask questions, like, “what are atoms” and “what can you do with atoms.” That’s really the goal, to get people thinking about that.

If you’re trying to make a movie using atoms and molecules, how do you get a smooth background where you’re not just seeing more atoms and molecules?

The material that we’re working on, think of it like a tabletop. We’re looking at the surface of this table, and the table is made from copper. Underneath the bumps, which are individual molecules, are these copper atoms. The copper atoms happen to be very smooth. It’s atomically very flat, but also electronically very flat. If you look very carefully, you can see ripples on that surface, and those are electrons that are stuck there, and they just make it look cooler, I think.

Why did you use carbon monoxide molecules?

It’s a practical question for us. When our design team approached me with the question, “could we make a movie,” of course the question then is, “how many atoms can you move, how many dots are available to tell the story.” This particular surface and these particular molecules are very easy, relatively speaking, for us to move. I saw, “we can do about 5,000,” and they were very happy and designed the whole script layout. 

How difficult was this?

I have a team of four people, scientists and some students and post-docs, and we took turns, 18-hour days, ten days straight nonstop, basically. And that’s how long it took. Every single move was done by hand. Nothing automated. It’s hard!

In order to tell how far you were moving each molecule, you relied on listening to sounds. Can you explain what’s going on there?

Think of this tool as like an old fashioned record player. You have a needle running along a track, and that needle gets bumped around by bumps in the track that we put there on purpose: that’s the music that you’re listening to. It’s a way to image those bumps, in a sense.  And in the same sense, our tool also has a needle, and that needle is very sharp, it’s sharp down to a single atom. When it runs close to a surface, it also feels bumps on a surface, which are the atoms and molecules on the surface. When we do the imaging, we run the needle along the surface and basically record the bumps on the surface. When we want to move atoms, we can’t directly see what we’re doing, since we use the same needle. But, we can use feedback that is basically the interaction between the atom and the tip of the needle. The interaction is not constant as we’re dragging this atom along the surface [since the atom being moved ‘fits’ better into the spaces in the lattice of copper atoms that makes up the surface], and so we’re listening to that directly on a speaker, and we can count how many lattice sites we’ve moved.

If I want to move this molecule from point A to point B, I can say, “okay, that’s going to be four sites,” so I just move it until I hear four times this transition from quiet to noisy. And then I look at it, and hopefully I did the right thing. Think of it like an egg carton: your eggs always fit better in the bottom of the egg carton. There are certain locations where the atoms want to sit, and others where they don’t want to sit. So in terms of resolution, this is the finest thing we can build.

How long until this sort of technology makes it into practical applications that we might be able to use?

We’re actually not that far away. It’s truly amazing what the science and technology community has achieved over the last 40 or 50 years in miniaturizing both hard disk drives and also the silicon-based technology, transistor-sized stuff. So, it’s still quite a bit larger than what we can do with single atoms, but it’s out there.

Will it ever be possible to make a movie that’s smaller than this?

This is it, if you want to tell a story. You can make movies about certain aspects of the scientific world, but if you want to tell a story like we’re doing here, the size of atoms is definitely the limit. That’s it. That’s the end.

This is really the core motivation of why we do this work. In current technology, we’re shrinking down the components year by year. You ask yourself, “when is that going to end?” But if you think about it, the ultimate end is the single atom. At that point, you’re switching from normal chemistry to particle physics and high-energy physics, and that’s just not something you can control at the level that we need. And that’s why we do this work: we build structures starting at the level of a single atom, and we ask how many atoms does it take to do what we want to do.



Oh, and IBM has also (just for fun) created what may very well be the smallest picture of the starship Enterprise in existence:

Live small and prosper.

In the gallery below, we’ve got some additional Star Trek images, along with a big pile of awesome videos from IBM taking you through the details of how they put this movie together and why it’s important.

Via IBM Research

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook