Printing technology to create a printed drawing or some other type of image typically requires ink. However, an international group of researchers in Japan have succeeded printing one of the most iconic Japanese artworks without the use of traditional pigments in a first of its kind for this type of print production.

A team at Kyoto University not only printed a version of Japanese artist’s Katsushika Hokusai’s “Great Wave” (called “Ukiyo-e” in Japanese) without ink, but researchers also fabricated the smallest version of the artwork to date—just 1 millimeter in width—said Professor Easan Sivaniah, head of the Pureosity Group at iCeMS, Kyoto University.

This would not have been possible without the use of polymers to create the image rather than typical inks, he told Design News.

The Great Wave, inkless printing, Pureosity Group, iCeMS, Kyoto University, polystyrene, PMMA, polycarbonate

Researchers in Japan used new inkless technology to produces the world’s smallest version of the famous “Great Wave” painting—called “Ukiyo-e” in Japanese—by famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The team said it could pave the way for new printed displays, sensors, and other technologies. (Image Source: Kyoto University iCeMS)

“Almost any polymer could work, but we tend to focus on non-crystalline, but commodity polymers such as polystyrene, PMMA, polycarbonate etc.,” Sivaniah told Design News. “We could print at a resolution of 14,000 DPI.  This is not possible with any other printing technology, such as laser or ink jet.”

The technology paves the way for printing of images and displays for smaller and smaller devices–which new form factors for technology such as sensors, wearables, anti-counterfeiting images, and other next-generation electronic devices demand, he said.

“It demonstrates that we can print really small features, that exhibit color, that can be introduced into small devices,” Sivaniah told Design News. “It is–with modern science–possible to find other technologies, even ones capable of printing at 100,000 DPI. But those technologies would never translate into a commercial venture, taking perhaps a week to generate a single image.”

The printing that Sivaniah and his team demonstrated fabricates images much faster, speed that can be improved in future versions of the technology, he said. “We can produce our images within minutes, and probably much less with some optimization,” Sivaniah told us.

Creating Color without Pigment

Researchers achieved their result by manipulating polymers, which when exposed to stress form slender fibers known as fibrils—a process called “crazing” that happens when the material stretches at the molecular level, researchers said.

These fibers cause a visual effect, and researchers realized that if they controlled the way they were formed and organized—a process called organized microfibrillation—they also could control this scattering of light to create colors across the whole visible spectra, researchers said. This is how they formed a printing palette without the use of pigment, Sivaniah said.

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature.

Sivaniah told us that the team is looking to develop partnerships not just within Japan but also globally to “make this technology as widely accessible as possible.”

“By finding out what the industry needs might be, we will be able to strategically direct our future research towards specific application areas,” he told Design News.

The research also could inform the scientific community about how to work with what’s seen as material failure—that is, the crazing of the polymer—to create future innovations, Sivaniah said.

“More fundamentally, there is an important principle that this paper exposes,” he told us. “That principle is that failure, or fracture, if controlled, can lead to positive technology benefits.  We want to explore that concept at a fundamental research level.”

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

Drive World with ESC Launches in Silicon Valley

This summer (August 27-29), Drive World Conference & Expo launches in Silicon Valley with North America’s largest embedded systems event, Embedded Systems Conference (ESC). The inaugural three-day showcase brings together the brightest minds across the automotive electronics and embedded systems industries who are looking to shape the technology of tomorrow.

Will you be there to help engineer this shift? Register today!