The scientists at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore have successfully encoded color information into nano-sized structures and in the process inadvertently broke the record for printing at the highest color resolution ever: 100,000 dots per inch.

The image shown above is a greatly enlarged version of the actual print. The scale on the central image shows a length of 10 microns. If you are like me you are scratching your head and wondering, “Exactly how long is a micron?” There are 1000 microns in a millimeter, or 25,400 microns in an inch.  That means that this 50 x 50 micron image is smaller than the cross section of the finest thread of hair!

Each four nanodisks make up a pixel, and their size and spacing determines the colour reflected back.

According to research scientist Joel Yang, “Colour information is encoded in the dimensional parameters of metal nanostructures, so that tuning their plasmon resonance determines the colours of the individual pixels. “

According to the diagram, that means that you can make the pixel any color you want by varying the size and spacing of each of the four nanodisks within the pixel.

Of course, you can’t see the nano-image with the naked eye. It needs to be enlarged. Even the highest-resolution image will start to pixilate as it gets bigger and bigger.

The enlarged nano-print reminds of the wonderful portraits built by polymer artist Julie Eakes. Where nano printing uses four nanodisks to “optically mix” the color of the pixel, Julie uses bullseye canes to do the same thing.

Originally inspired by the paintings of Chuck Close, Eakes has recently taken a huge jump into the 3D world with her new portrait bowls.

Who is Lena?  The nano-print image comes from a cropped centerfold photo of Lena Soderberg featured in the November 1972 issue of Playboy magazine.  First used to test the print quality of a 512 x 512 dpi image in 1973, this 40 year old image is a standard test for image processing quality. Really.

Who knows, maybe Eakes will create her own “Lena” in polymer clay some day!

 Colour Printing reaches its highest resolution, Nature magazine, 12 August 2012