IBM has said that a group of its boffins have used nano-printing to create one of the world’s smallest works of art.

Working in conjunction with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, its scientists recreated a 17th century drawing of the Sun by Robert Fludd by etching 20,000 gold particles, each about 60 nanometres in diameter, onto a silicon chip “wafer” to form the picture. To give an idea of why this is special, 60 nanometres is roughly 100 times smaller than a human red blood cell.

IBM believes this demonstration of a new nano ‘printing’ technique, could be used to cheaply fabricate tiny sensors and components for future microchips.

In one experiment, IBM says the researchers achieved the controlled placement of catalytic seed particles for growing semiconducting nano-wires. Such nano-wires are promising candidates for future transistors in microchips.

Until now, the standard top-down micro-fabrication techniques produce such tiny particles by in effect carving them out of a bigger piece of material. Printing, in contrast, adds ready-made nano-particles onto a surface in a very efficient way and allows for different types of materials such as metals, polymers, semiconductors, and oxides to be combined in one process.

Translating the resolution of these particles into a traditional printing term known as “dots per inch” (dpi), a standard measure that defines how many individual spots of ink can be printed on a certain area, the nano-printing method yields 100,000 dots per inch, whereas common offset printing today operates at 1,500 dpi.

This is not the first time IBM has revealed techniques for manipulating individual atoms. Back in 1990, Big Blue scientists demonstrated a method for moving individual atoms using a scanning tunnelling microscope. The first structure they created spelt the word IBM.

And last month, IBM demonstrated how it could perform certain computer functions on single atoms and molecules. It said the discovery could someday lead to processors the size of a speck of dust.

The race to build smaller and faster chips is one of the driving forces behind research of this nature. Indeed, chip makers such as Intel and AMD have already shrunk the dimensions of chip features to 65 nanometres, and in the coming years they plan to shrink it even further to a possible 32 nanometres. Unfortunately, the wires built from silicon tend to leak more electricity at each step on that downward scale, and will eventually reach a limit where they are no longer useful.

IBM says it would be 3 to 5 years before this nano-printing method could be widely used as a fabrication method, and it remains to be seen whether growing semiconducting nano-wires could help resolve some of the problems associated with tiny transistors.