Miniature icon heralds inkless printing process

Researchers have succeeded in creating a reproduction of what is arguably Japan’s most iconic art image that stands just one millimetre tall, contains no pigments, and was fashioned by method not too dissimilar to that used by distracted school children to deface plastic rulers.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, a team led by Easan Sivaniah from Kyoto University unveil a stunning miniature copy of the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, which was originally published sometime between 1829 and 1833.

The print, which shows Mount Fuji in the distance behind a storm-tossed sea, is extremely famous, with reproductions – on postcards, posters, tea towels and tee-shirts – sold by the million every year.

And while such tourist-friendly merchandise varies in size (the original is a modest 26 by 38 centimetres), none reaches the diminutive dimensions of the one created by Sivaniah’s group.

Not that the researchers are intent on opening up a new niche in an already crowded art reproduction market. Rather, they opted to recreate Hokusai’s image as a way of demonstrating the feasibility of a newly developed inkless printing method known as Organised Microfibrillation (OM). 

The method involves the finely controlled distortion of pieces of plastic.

“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,” explains Sivaniah. 

“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.”

Torturing rulers, however, never results in anything but an opaque mess. The Japanese method, in contrast, involves highly specific deformations that influence the way in which light scatters across the surface. 

The differential refractions thus absorb or reflect different parts of the visible light spectrum, producing hues in much the same way that tiny surface variations produce the bright colours of butterfly wings or peacock tail feathers.

Sivaniah says the process can produce large-scale inkless printing at a density of 1400 dots-per-inch (dpi). Standard magazine printing operates at 300 dpi.

Organised Microfibrillation, however, has applications way beyond that of traditional printing.

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

“So, for example in the area of health and well-being, 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 health care professional.”

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