Nano-Verses: Unique partnership melds art & nanotechnology

SOURCE: Mitya Ivanov/Unsplash
The partnership has developed a cost-effective way to fabricate a new optical nano-material.

By U2B Staff 

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Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers are collaborating with acclaimed visual artists in a unique partnership that blends nanotechnology, art and communication to explore, develop and mass-produce a novel nano-optical art medium.

The project, called Nano-Verses, entailed the development of new nano-materials, which are chemical substances or materials that are manufactured and used at a very small scale. 


In the field of nanotechnology, these nano-materials are explored at the nanometre level (there are one million nanometres in one millimetre). 

Nanotechnology allows the customisation of these materials at the smallest scale which gives each unit a unique characteristic that can revolutionise technologies behind various applications, including data transmission as well as storage, security and visual media. 

However, developing new nano-materials is proving to be a challenge.

“We started from a problem that exists when working with nanostructured materials,” said SFU engineering science postdoctoral fellow Hao Jiang – who is part of the team that devised the project, alongside professor Bozena Kaminska with former postdoctoral fellow and media studies researcher Aleksandra Kaminska – in a media statement

“Before this, if we wanted to make an image that was one centimetre by one centimetre in size using nano-optical image-making, it would take an entire week in the laboratory and thousands of dollars for each unique image.”

These images are known as nano-optical variable devices that are commonly found in the holographic pixelated images used in banknotes and concert tickets which prevent counterfeiting. 

Each nanostructure is so unique it cannot be counterfeited. Source: Raychan/Unsplash.

Jiang added that for this project, the team successfully created a new cost-effective production process for these materials where it costs just as much to make one image as it does to make one thousand. 

With the creation of this new fabrication process, the project was expanded to include visual artists Christine Davis and Scott Lyall with the intent of developing artwork that will further explore the differences in terms of scale, light and surface interactions of these materials. 

This form of artwork was dubbed NanoMedia and was developed at SFU’s 4D LABS by the Centre for Integrative Bio-Engineering Research (Ciber labs) research team led by Bozena and Jiang. 

The process of creating NanoMedia involves applying light-sensitive chemicals onto a surface that contains one billion nano-materials per square centimetre. These materials have the ability to be manipulated to display pixels of specific colours. 

The final image or colour motif determined by the artist is revealed through a process similar to developing film photographs. The surface is exposed to UV light or a UV laser writer which will reveal the pixels reflecting the selected colours in a pre-determined arrangement. 

“The whole process was very hands-on with the artists,” said Bozena.

“We had to learn from each other to make the technology correspond to what they had in mind, and vice versa. We also had to learn to think about our technology differently, with different objectives and criteria.”


The result of this meticulous process is a completed high-resolution image of up to 12,700 pixels per inch. These images appear iridescent as light reflects off each of the billions of tiny nanostructures. 

These small scale materials can also be tuned to reflect information in infrared light in the same way that a QR or bar code functions. 

The first NanoMedia came in the form of 1,000 copies of a front-page insert for the 50th-anniversary edition of the Canadian journal, PUBLIC

Designed with Davis, the image showed iridescent nano-optical stars shimmering on a transparent material overlaid onto a photograph of a night-time forest. 

After that, the next creation of NanoMedia was in the form of a series of framed art pieces on metal foils which were designed in collaboration with Lyall. These art pieces were displayed across various exhibitions in New York City, Toronto, London, and Paris. 

With a successful demonstration of the new production process for NanoMedia, the Ciber team is now commercialising it with industry partners. 

NanoMedia’s complex manufacturing process and unique structure make it nearly impossible to counterfeit, which could ideally be applied to the security printing industry for products such as banknotes and passports. 

Meanwhile, artists Davis and Lyall are still continuing to work with the nano-optical medium. 

“This was truly interdisciplinary,” said Bozena. 

“We took the highest fabrication techniques in nanotechnology and made an entirely new medium that is as intriguing for artists as it is useful for authentication and communication.”

Jiang added, “This project was a result of the efforts of our lab, the artists and our partners coming together to make something new. It was an amazing experience for everyone involved.”

A website has been launched by Bozena that documents the many facets of the project and was built through experimentation with artists and web designers Frédérique Laliberté and Boris Dumesnil-Poulin.