This nanoprinted Mona Lisa, created with a new technique that uses laser heat and aluminum, is about 10,000 times smaller than the original.
Technical University of Denmark
By Hilary Brueck
December 18, 2015

It may or may not be the prettiest artwork the world has ever seen. But it’s certainly the smallest.

Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark have printed a color copy of the Mona Lisa that fits snugly into one pixel on an iPhone 6 screen.

The tiny da Vinci copy is 10,000 times smaller than the original painting. The feat, made possible by a new technique in nano printing, involves producing color images at a resolution of 127,000 dots per inch. (For comparison, a typical inkjet office printer operates at around 300 dots per inch)

The technique was unveiled this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Colors in the print are produced by adding “plasmonic metasurfaces” to a plastic sheet, a kind of itty-bitty texturizing too small to be seen. Melting the material—laid down in columns –to different heights shifts how light is absorbed and activates different colors. Lower intensity lasering creates blues and purples, while higher temperatures build oranges and yellows.

Nanotechnology professor Anders Kristensen, who helped lead the research, says you can think of the tiny melting columns like snow falling on a house–the material on top doesn’t totally cover what’s below, instead, it creates a dense layer embossed onto a surface. Overlay that with an extremely thin smear of aluminum, and you’ve got a way to reflect colors. Kristensen says that part of the technique is ancient wisdom: “Even the Romans knew they could add metal particles to glass to make colored stained glass.”

This isn’t the first nano masterpiece: famous paintings have been printed on a very small scale before like this very authentic-looking nanoprinted Monet, reported by Wired last year. Literally splitting hairs here, but the Monet was a bit bigger—at about three hairs wide.

This is all very different from how most printing is done today—whereby colors are added in to print jobs layer by layer, drilling down to a desired hue. The new technique, in which color is manipulated by shifting the heights of cylinders, has the potential to be more precise and involve better resolution—and not just for teeny Mona Lisas.

Kristensen is already working on prototypes for the auto industry, and says they expect to be producing real car parts with the embossing technique by 2020.

In addition to creating more customized dashboards and car emblems, nano printing could also help bolster anti-fraud and anti-counterfeiting techniques.

For now, the technology is still a bit too expensive to print novelties or eclipse the world of home and office printers. In the auto world, molds for building the texturized columns are about 20% to 25% more expensive than others. But, maybe someday, the lightning-fast nano printing will also be used to make transactions more discrete. If manufacturers could nano-print labels on products at invisible-to-the-eye sizes, you’d never have to see a barcode again.

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