This movie by IBM, called “A Boy and His Atom,” plays out in frames smaller than the tip of a needle, using actors constructed of single molecules. It’s whimsical, sure, but the underlying technology is one that researchers across the globe are actively investigating for its use in creating smaller computer chips.
The surface of the animation is a copper plate, and the individual dots are carbon monoxide molecules. (Carbon monoxide has one carbon atom and one oxygen atom, stacked on top of each other.) The molecules are manipulated using a scanning tunneling microscope, an instrument for imaging materials at an atomic level. When the sharp metal tip of the microscope is brought extremely close to a carbon monoxide molecule, a chemical reaction creates an attraction between the two, and the molecule will then follow where the needle is dragged.
The waves seen around the molecules are a disturbance in the electron density in the copper atoms on the base-plate. When a carbon monoxide molecule comes close to the plate, the electrons in the copper atoms are displaced. Because they can’t escape the surface of the copper, they protrude, like ripples in a pond.
See for yourself: