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This article is from the In-Depth Report Future of Manufacturing

Nanoscale Printing Has Big Implications for Science and Technology

IBM researchers arrange 60-nanometer gold particles to re-create a work of Renaissance art



Courtesy of IBM

Researchers from IBM's Zurich Research Lab and Switzerland's ETH Zurich science and technology university today announced the development of a dramatic new printing process that can manipulate nanosize particles to create larger images. The new technology promises to allow scientists, medical professionals and technologists to for the first time place particles smaller than 100 nanometers precisely where they are needed.

The process, which likely will not be commercially available for several years, is expected to have the most dramatic impact in the fields of biomedicine, electronics and information technology. It will help advance the development of nanoscale biosensors and ultratiny lenses that can bend light inside future optical chips as well as the fabrication of nanowires that could be used to build more advanced computer chips, researchers report in Nature Nanotechnology.

"This process is more reliable than any process before it at depositing particles," says Heiko Wolf, a researcher in nanopatterning at IBM's Zurich Research Lab who worked on this project with five other IBM and ETH Zurich colleagues.

The researchers are the first to print particles as tiny as 60 nanometers, more than 33,000 times smaller than a pinhead. In "dots per inch," the measurement used to indicate the number of individual spots of ink printed on a certain area, the nanoprinting method yields a resolution of 100,000 dots of print, or dpi, compared with the 1,500 dpi of common offset printing.

The research utilizes the principles behind printing technology to more efficiently place nanoparticles onto a surface. Scientists demonstrated the efficiency and versatility of their method by using it to print a copy of 17th-century mystic philosopher Robert Fludd's image of the sun (the alchemist's symbol for gold) using about 20,000 gold particles, each of them 60 nanometers in diameter. The printing method placed one particle per dot to create the tiniest piece of artwork ever printed from single pigment particles.

Still just a conceptual construct, the nanoprinting process could be applied to biomedicine to help screen for diseases by graphically illustrating the locations of, say, cancer cells or heart attack markers in a patient's body.

In the information technology world, nanoprinting could be used to achieve the controlled placement of catalytic seed particles for growing semiconducting nanowires. Such nanowires are promising candidates for future transistors in microchips. "We were looking to find some technique to grow a nanowire," Wolf says, "where you want one to grow."

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are also experimenting with a form of nanoscale printing called nanolithography, which may lead to the production of nanopatterned structures, including nanocircuits, that may be useful in a variety of fields, including electronics, nanofluidics and medicine. Once perfected, nanolithography could be used to draw nanocircuits for the electronics industry, create nanochannels for nanofluidics devices or be adapted for drug delivery or biosensing technologies.

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