Two days ago, IBM released a video of a boy playing with a ball—well, a molecule. You might think a molecule is hard to catch, but the boy himself is only a millionth of an inch tall! Beyond making micro-cartoons, the tools developed to manipulate the placement of individual atoms could be used to build nanotechnology for medical, industrial, and computing purposes.
“A Boy and his Atom” consists of 242 frames, each measuring 45 x 25 nanometers, consisting of a total of 65 carbon monoxide molecules placed on a copper surface by physically pushing them around with a 1 nanometer needle. The picture we see is magnified 100 million times by a scanning tunneling microscope, and the “dots” in the video are actually the oxygen atoms in the molecules. To keep the pixels stuck to the copper, the “image” must be kept at a temperature of about 5 Kelvin.
The scanning tunneling microscope itself was actually invented by researchers at IBM, and the needle used to place the molecules is how the microscope “sees.” If a potential is applied to the needle with respect to the copper surface, electrons on a nearby atom have a small probability of “tunneling” onto it: quantum mechanically, electrons are able to disappear from the atom and reappear on the tip of the needle. Moreover, the closer the atom is to the needle, the higher the probability of tunneling. As the needle runs along the surface, it registers more tunneling electrons around the oxygen atoms, and these spikes are interpreted as the raised dots in the picture (see an animation here).
Of course, IBM is not trying to win an Oscar—just like Watson wasn’t actually built to drive humans out of tv quiz shows. The company has a history of publicity stunts meant to raise awareness of ongoing research. They made headlines in 1989 when Don Eigler and his team spelled “IBM” with 35 Xenon atoms using the very same scanning tunneling microscope procedure that told the atomic boy’s story. The technology is ultimately being development to produce very small computer components, and in fact IBM has already used it to make a working bit using 12 atoms, as well as small logic circuits built out of carbon monoxide molecules. With arguably narrower importance to humanity, there are also some promotions for the upcoming Star Trek movie:
Deep Blue‘s iconic chess match with Kasparov and Watson’s rivalry with Ken Jennings on Jeopardy were likewise meant to showcase progress on search and sorting algorithms intended to benefit, among other things, the healthcare industry.