Andreas Heinrich is the Research Scientist, IBM Almaden Research Center, San Jose, Calif.
Have you run into a blue-screen when editing movies on your computer or been annoyed at the cell phone network for not getting you the next set of driving directions fast enough? The constant flow of big data overwhelms many aspects of our professional and personal lives every day.
In the future, you will not even be aware of all the big data flowing all around you. It will all be handled smoothly and effortlessly by nano-sized components interwoven into everyday communications tools.
For almost a century, the IT industry has been shrinking the components needed for computation and data storage, packing more of them on the chips that surround you. Predicting the end of these Moore's law trends has been a time-honored tradition. But within decades, the very natural end to this trend has been reached: the scale of single atoms. It's truly amazing if you look back at how this came about.
Atoms as the new solution
While the IT industry has been busy working on new generation chips to enable tomorrow's technology, the research community has jumped into a world where devices are made with atomic-scale control. We are not yet able to mass manufacture at this scale, but we do know how to build prototypes, one atom at a time.
The Scanning Tunneling Microscope is a Noble Prize winning tool invented by IBM scientists that enables us to see individual atoms on surfaces. However, the power of this tool does not end there: in 1989 Don Eigler at IBM Research in San Jose, California, amazed the world by placing individual atoms in precise locations to spell out I-B-M on a surface. Since then we have learned how to measure the electronic and magnetic properties of such structures simply by running a metal needle at the tiny distance of one nanometer along the surface of a material.
In order to address the big data conundrum my team at IBM Research recently answered a seemingly simple question: how many atoms does it take to make a stable magnet that could be used to store 1s and 0s in the digital world? The answer is 12 iron atoms positioned by an STM in a rectangular pattern on a special copper surface. These atoms could hold their collective magnetic state for many hours.
At the atom level, quantum mechanics unavoidably intervenes into our picture of stable magnetic states, causing random switching events that do not depend on temperature. To put this in perspective: it takes approximately one million atoms to store a bit of information on current hard drives making the atom a denser alternative.
Bringing atom innovation to a general audience
To highlight the amazing world of atoms to the decision makers of 2053, IBM recently created the world's smallest animated movie. The movie depicts a character, named Atom, befriending a single atom. They end up dancing and playing together. The movie is named "A Boy and His Atom." Guinness World Records has recognized it as the smallest stop-animation-motion movie.
Using an STM, nearly 10,000 atoms were precisely positioned on a copper surface to create 242 movie frames that were animated to create a one-minute movie. To visualize this tiny movie, the atoms were magnified about 100 million times. It took my dedicated team of four researchers, more than nine, 18-hour days to finish this project. Some frames contain several hundred atoms, while others required us to simply move one. (You can read more about it here.)
We made the atom movie because there is a need to bring the young generation back to the marvelous world of exploration and discovery that is science and technology. A world where it requires you to look for answers that will propel us safely to the future.