When news hit the headlines this month that IBM researchers had created the world’s smallest movie, we may well have gasped in astonishment at the ability of scientists to manipulate objects so small. But extreme miniaturisation is fast becoming routine in the world of technology.
Entitled A Boy and His Atom, the movie was created when scientists rendered still images of individually arranged atoms, resulting in 242 single frames. Certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, this microscopic movie is so small that it would take about a thousand frames laid side by side to span a single human hair.
Although the purpose behind the animation was to showcase the company’s efforts to design next-generation data storage solutions based on single atoms, the movie is really a bit of fun designed to inspire future scientists, according to Dr Andreas Heinrich, principal investigator at IBM Research in California.
“This isn't really about a particular scientific breakthrough. The movie is really a conversation-starter to get kids and other people talking about – and excited about – math, science and technology.”
The STM, an IBM invention that won scientists the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics, enabled researchers to control a super-sharp needle along a copper surface to ‘feel’ the atoms. Only one nanometer away from the copper surface (a distance of a billionth of a metre) the needle was able to physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and pull them to a precisely specified location.
Such miniaturisation has obvious applications in computing and chip design. Yet, if you think your smartphone punches above its weight in terms of processing power, that’s really nothing. In future, some computers capable of carryout complex calculations will be roughly the size of a snowflake, according to researchers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Nicknamed ‘smart dust’, these miniature marvels will incorporate a tiny CPU (central processing unit) running a stripped down operating system and applications, with tiny RAM and flash memory banks. The aim is for these one millimetre cube-sized machines to act as sensors in buildings to monitor movement or temperature. Other applications include embedding them in personal items, such as keys, so they can be found easily or various medical applications.
Powering the machines is one issue that will ultimately depend on their location: some may use miniature solar panels if situated near a light source, while others may rely on temperature fluctuations in the environment. A bigger problem is going to be how the machines communicate with the outside world because transmitting the data is a much more power-hungry operation.
What Chemistry experiments have you done with your science class? Did you use Molecule & Atom models to explain the process?