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World’s smallest stop-motion film made with individual atoms

A Boy and His Atom
This is a still image from the movie "A Boy and His Atom," billed as the world's smallest stop-motion film. It was made by researchers at IBM.

Scientists at IBM have just unveiled the world's smallest stop-motion film — certified by Guinness — one made by moving individual atoms. What you're seeing is 100 million times bigger than the original elements.

For Star Trek fans, the team also unveiled several franchise-inspired images made with atoms, including the USS Enterprise, the famous logo and the "live long and prosper" sign.

Why? To prove that they can and in the process show off the fun side of science, according to Andreas Heinrich, a principal investigator at IBM Research in California who led the effort.

"We think that that's exciting and that will drive normal people's interest in (asking) what is this. What are atoms? Why are we here? What happened? All of these questions that we want people to ask," he told NBC News.

Smallest stop-motion movie
The movie, "A Boy and His Atom," depicts a boy named Atom who goofs around with an actual atom during 242 single frames of stop-motion action filled with dancing, a game of catch and a trampoline romp. You can check it out below.

"Every one of those dots that you see is one atom," Heinrich said.

The dots were rearranged for each frame with a scanning tunneling microscope, a tool that operates at minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 268 degrees Celsius) and magnifies the surface more than 100 million times. The tool was invented and built at IBM more than 30 years ago.

It took months of planning and a team of four IBM scientists to run the tool during 18 hour days for about 10 days straight to produce the images, which were then cleaned up and stitched together to make the film.

Limits of data storage
When not making movies with atoms, Heinrich uses the tool to pursue novel applications in data storage and computation. Recently, he and colleagues built a hard drive that can store a bit of data with just 12 atoms. The team is also exploring the behavior of atoms in hopes of building a quantum computer.

Such heady research could one day lead to thumb drives that can store every movie ever made and computers that can crack the world's most secure codes. Creative types at IBM, however, thought news of such feats had a limited appeal. They wanted something more fun to show the world.

"They thought if we can make a movie, it would be a really cool thing," Heinrich said. Nine months later, the fruits of their collaboration are rolling onto screens biggish and small. More about the project is in the "making of" video below.

In addition, IBM Research on Wednesday also released several StarTrek-inspired images made with atoms using the same technique. "IBM is giving Star Trek fans the opportunity to experience what IBM scientists see as the end of Moore's Law — and a beginning on another frontier — single atoms," the company said in a news release.

Star Trek image
An atomic Star Trek image shows the USS Enterprise. IBM Research made the image with a two ton microscope that magnifies the surface 100 million times.

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.