(Source: IBM)
Researchers also make tiny Star Trek stills

Dubbed "A Boy and His Atom" and certified by the Guinness World Book of Records as being the smallest movie ever created by mankind, International Business Machine Inc.'s (IBM) scanning tunneling microscope (STM) technology demonstration is generating an Oscar worthy buzz.

I. Directed by Tunneling Electrons

While the eventual goal of the IBM team is to use the STM or its successors to manipulate atoms to form tiny components like memory or transistors, IBM focused on as more light-hearted proof of concept.

In a one minute animation consisting of 242 frames of stop motion animation, with each frame measuring roughly 45 x 25 nanometers, the IBM researchers create a vivid scene of a boy befriending an "atom", then engaging in activities like "dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline."  

In total 65 carbon monoxide molecules (consisting of two atoms each, for 130 total atoms) were positioned to create the objects in frame.  The dots seen in frame are the oxygen atoms in the molecule.  Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless gas that is lethal to humans when inhaled in sufficient quantities.

In addition to the tiny movie, researchers also created a trio of stills to promote the upcoming Star Trek movie, Into Darkness.  

IBM Star Trek IBM Vulcan salute IBM Enterprise stills
(Click to enlarge) [Image Source: IBM]

The stills show the iconic Federation logo, a Vulcan salute, and a tiny Starship Enterprise.

II. Towards <20 Atom Devices

IBM's Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for the invention of the STM, which allowed the first visualization of atoms.  The STM works via hovering a tiny super-pointy copper probe over the surface.  At 1 nm from the material surface the probe receives a small dose of tunneling electrons.  The tool "scans" the surface, by moving parallel to the surface and adjusting the probe up and down to maintain constant current via the tunneling effect.

STMs can also be used to manipulate atoms on a nanoscopic scale.  Moving atoms creates a unique sound, which IBM's equipment measures to determine how far it's been moved. 

Christopher Lutz, Research Scientist, IBM Research, describes the STM used in the animation demo, remarking, "It weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of -268º Celsius (~-450º Fahrenheit) and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times. The ability to control the temperature, pressure and vibrations at exact levels makes our IBM Research lab one of the few places in the world where atoms can be moved with such precision."

The cold temperatures are necessary to keep the atoms standing almost still; at room temperature they would oscillate making it impossible to achieve accurate manipulation.

IBM last January published a study on the use of STM technology to create the world's smallest memory device -- a 12-atom iron (Fe) magnet, which can store a bit of data.  Current memory circuits take around 1 million atoms.

A high quality atomic-scale STM can cost up to $150,000 USD or more [source].  If you like hobby electronics and can dig up and oscilloscope, you can make your own crude STM for around $150 USD, according to this guide.

Sources: IBM, YouTube

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