This tiny piece of art promises to totally revolutionise printing

19 Jun 2019

A 1mm-wide reproduction of ‘The Great Wave’ could usher in a new era of printing. Image: Kyoto University/iCeMS

A tiny reproduction of one of the most famous Japanese paintings has been done without the need for any pigments.

Since humans first began painting in caves thousands of years ago, they have relied on pigments to translate the image from a thought to the canvas. Now, however, a new ‘great wave’ of printing without the need for colours looks set to arrive following a major breakthrough by a team from Kyoto University in Japan.

This team revealed an extremely tiny reproduction of the famous 19th-century painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (who is revered in his homeland as much as Europeans idolise Leonardo Da Vinci).

Measuring just 1mm in width, the painting is the smallest reproduction of The Great Wave to date, but was also recreated without using a single pigment. This was done though manipulation of the tiny piece of canvas at a molecular level, as Prof Easan Sivaniah explained.

“Polymers when exposed to stress – a kind of ‘stretching out’ at molecular level – undergo a process called ‘crazing’ in which they form tiny, slender fibres known as fibrils,” he said.

“These fibres cause a powerful visual effect. Crazing is what the bored school kid sees when he repeatedly bends a transparent ruler until the stretched plastic starts to cloud into a kind of opaque white.”

Close-up of a tiny 1mm-wide ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ painting on a person's fingertip.

The famous ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ painting recreated using the OM technique. Image: Kyoto University/iCeMS

Contact lenses hooked up to the cloud

By controlling the way these microscopic fibrils were formed and organised in patterns – referred to as organised microfibrillation (OM) – the team could forge a revolutionary new palette by controlling the scattering of light to create colours across the whole visible spectra, from blue to red.

Already seen in nature with the spectacular plumage of the male peacock and other creatures, this OM technology allows an inkless, large-scale colour printing process that generates images at resolutions of up to 14,000 dpi on a number of flexible and transparent formats.

“OM allows us to print porous networks for gases and liquids, making it both breathable and wearable,” Sivaniah said.

“So, for example in the area of health and wellbeing, it is possible to incorporate it into a kind of flexible ‘fluid circuit board’ that could sit on your skin, or your contact lenses, to transmit essential biomedical information to the cloud or directly to your healthcare professional.”

Publishing its findings to Nature, the team said that the technology has so far been able to prove itself in commonly used polymers for the food and packaging industries, such as polystyrene and polycarbonate.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic