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A Boy And His Atom: The World's Smallest Movie

The ability to move single atoms, one of the smallest particles of any element in the universe, is crucial to IBM's research in the field of atomic-scale memory. In 2012, IBM scientists announced the creation of the world's smallest magnetic memory bit, made of just 12 atoms. This breakthrough could transform computing by providing the world with devices that have access to unprecedented levels of data storage. But even nanophysicists need to have a little fun. In that spirit, the scientists moved atoms by using their scanning tunneling microscope to make … a movie, which has been verified by Guinness World Records™ as The World’s Smallest Stop-Motion Film.  Download the movie (16.3MB)

Exploring the limits of storage ... and moviemaking

Today, it takes roughly one million atoms to store a single bit of data on a computer or electronic device. A bit is the basic unit of information in computing that can have only one of two values, one or zero. Eight bits form a byte. Recently, IBM Research announced it can now store that same bit of information in just 12 atoms.

From 1,000,000 to 12 — that’s a dramatic breakthrough that not only has the potential to make our computers and devices smaller and more powerful, but also holds enormous implications for the way entire industries operate.

Teach your students about the power of atoms with our activity kits

From disk drums to atomic memory

The first magnetic hard disk, RAMAC, was developed by IBM in the late 1950's - the drive consisted of large drums full of magnetic platters that allowed for random read and write access and stored 5–10 MB of data. Today's atomic memory breakthrough builds upon some of the same concepts used in RAMAC, but allow for much denser storage at the atomic level that could carry entire libraries of music and movies on a small device.


Big data

As big data gets bigger, moves faster and becomes more uncertain, dramatic increases in storage density are needed in order to gain insights and make important decisions.


Cognitive computing

As big data continues to get bigger and move faster, cognitive systems that learn about specific domains such as medicine and interact more naturally with people will require dramatic performance advances in key information processing components such as memory, networking and storage.

The world's smallest actors: atoms

Science fiction at the atomic level

The IBM scientists behind the world’s smallest movie came up with another creation made of atoms – images inspired by Star Trek. The "Star Trek Into Darkness" mobile app features images of the USS Enterprise, the Star Trek Logo and the ‘live long and prosper' sign - all made out of individual atoms, using the same techniques and equipment as the world's smallest movie.



The world's smallest movie set

The scanning tunneling microscope (STM):
One way to look at the STM is as a needle that drags atoms across a surface using magnetism. But behind that needle is a room full of equipment, all there to control the environment to a spectacular degree. The development of the STM by IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986.

Copper plate:
The scientists used copper 111 as the surface of the animation — the same material they used 10 years ago when they built the first computer that performed digital computation operations.

Carbon monoxide (CO):
The scientists chose carbon monoxide molecules to move around the plate. Carbon monoxide has one carbon atom and one oxygen atom, stacked on top of each other.

The making of the world's smallest movie

Just how small is an atom?

An atom is the smallest division of a chemical element. In fact, to even see one you have to magnify it over 100 million times. That's small. So small that there are probably more atoms in one grain of sand than there are grains of sand on an entire beach. What’s more, there are about 5 million atoms in the period at the end of this sentence.

Learn how atoms form molecules



What are those waves around the atoms?

When you’re watching our atom-sized movie, you’ll notice little ripples around the atoms. Those waves are a disturbance in the electron density in the copper atoms on a copper plate. When a carbon monoxide molecule comes close to the plate, the electrons in the copper atoms are displaced. Because they can’t escape the surface of the copper, they protrude (similar to the way water ripples — but doesn’t break the surface — when you throw a rock into a lake). Watch Andreas talk more about the waves.



What does moving an atom sound like?

When the scientists move atoms in their lab at IBM Research, they hear a crackling noise. That is the sound of the electric current that is produced in the scanning tunneling microscope when the carbon monoxide molecule follows the tip along the copper surface. The current is run through speakers so the scientists can hear it. In this way, they can listen to the change in the current and tell when the atoms they are moving are in different positions. Watch Andreas and Chris talk more about this sound.



Why does the movie start with 12 atoms?

The movie starts with 12 atoms to celebrate the breakthrough by IBM scientists of successfully using 12 atoms to store one bit of data — in our current technology, it takes 1,000,000 atoms to store one bit of data.



Why are the atoms in the movie sitting on a copper plate?

The scientists used copper because that element, in combination with carbon monoxide, produced the most stable atoms for moving.

Learn how the scientists moved the atoms across the copper

The scientists


Andreas Heinrich

Andreas Heinrich

Christopher Lutz

Christopher Lutz

Susanne Baumann

Susanne Baumann

Ileana Rau

Ileana Rau

 Every once in a while you
sit down and you go,
I'm working with atoms,
this is just incredible.


—Andreas Heinrich, Principal Investigator

Reports from the lab

IBM researchers documented their progress while making the world's smallest movie. Here, their daily webcam updates tell you more about the ups and downs of moving all those atoms.