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How the world’s tiniest film can transform computers

Why a stop-motion film whose cast was made up of a few thousand atoms may transform the way we use computers.

Researchers at IBM have made the world’s smallest movie. And its cast? A few thousand atoms, names unknown.

But quite apart from breaking film-making records, what else can the world's smallest stop-motion movie tell us? Possibly quite a lot about the future of data storage and memory capacity.

Research into atomic-scale memory focuses on the ability to move single atoms, one of the smallest particles of any element in the universe. In 2012, IBM scientists announced the creation of the world's smallest magnetic memory bit, made of just 12 magnetic atoms, instead of regular systems that use about 1 million atoms. This could have huge implications for storage: we could store 100,000 times more information in the same space - instead of one movie, you could store 100,000 movies.

But nanophysics is difficult to get your head around - and scientists need to have some fun amidst all the hard work. So, to try to illustrate the possibilities, researchers decided to make a movie, by moving atoms with a scanning tunnelling microscope. A Boy and His Atom has since been verified by the Guinness World Records as the world’s smallest stop-motion film.

The one-minute video is made from carbon and oxygen atoms repeatedly rearranged to show a boy dancing, throwing a ball and bouncing on a trampoline.

BBC Future met researcher Andreas Heinrich in his laboratory at IBM's Almaden Research Center in California, to find out more about the microscopic movie-making.

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