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How a micro-magazine smaller than salt shows 3-D printers’ big potential

Physicist Urs Duerig uses tweezers to hold a silicon tip with a sharp apex, 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil, of a prototype of an IBM NanoFrazor 3-D nano printing tool at a laboratory of IBM Research in Rueschlikon, near Zurich, April 23, 2014. A laboratory in Switzerland has created the smallest magazine cover in the world, using a tiny chisel to create an image so minute that 2,000 of them could fit on a grain of salt.

ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS

Take it with a grain of salt – or actually, far less than that.

Scientists have used a new microscopic 3-D printer to produce the world's smallest magazine cover, measuring 0.011 by 0.014 millimetres.

The front of a recent edition of National Geographic Kids, featuring a pair of panda bears, is so tiny that 2,000 of them could fit on a single grain of salt.

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It was set to officially enter the Guinness World Record books at an announcement in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

While the minuscule mag may prompt jokes about the struggles of the publishing industry, researchers are more excited about the practical applications.

The first of these machines sold anywhere in the world recently arrived at McGill University, where experts hope it will help develop a new generation of technologies.

It has a wide range of potential applications, including energy-efficient transistors in cellphones, nano-sized security tags, and a etter understanding of the genetic root of diseases like Alzheimer's.

Matthieu Nannini, the manager of the McGill nanotools-microfab facility, said the new machine will make it easier to quickly test out hypotheses.

"It's going to help researchers a lot, in terms of turnaround," Nannini said in an interview at the university's physics department, where the machine was on display.

"When a researcher has an idea, and he or she wants to test it right away, they are going to be able to do that with this machine."

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The IBM-patented technology, which was licensed to a Swiss start-up company, uses a tiny "chisel" with a heatable silicon tip 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil point.

The nano-sized tip is able to carve out patterns and structures on a microscopic scale on a strip of polymer.

"It usually takes around two or three minutes, depending on the settings," said Philip Paul, co-founder of the company, SwissLitho.

The machine carries a price tag of about $500,000.

It was purchased with an $11.3-million grant from the Canadian Foundation of Innovation, in partnership with McGill and the Quebec government. The money is aimed at upgrading McGill's nanotools facility.

At the university, researchers demonstrated the power of the tool by quickly recreating a grey-scale copy of the latest cover of the university's research magazine.

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They were careful to make it slightly bigger than the record-breaking National Geographic, but it was still only about a tenth of the size of a strand of human hair.

It didn't take long to etch the image onto a piece of polymer, which was then projected onto a computer screen.

Earlier, they also created a nano-sized map of Canada measuring 30 micrometres, or 0.030 millimetres.

Professor Peter Grutter, the head of McGill's physics department, said the machine is smaller and less expensive than many tools used in nanotechnology.

"It's much easier to use, more robust, and much faster," Grutter said.

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