Jan 31, 2007

Takahashi An innovation from Zink: photographs without ink

By Dean Takahashi, Mercury News

Think about a world where you can print photos without ink, a printer cartridge or a big printer sitting alongside your computer. That’s the promise of Zink Imaging, a Waltham, Mass., start-up whose name suggests its bold goal: zero ink.

Zink is just one of 68 companies presenting new products at DEMO, a conference in Palm Desert that starts tonight and runs through Thursday. But its potential for shaking things up makes it stand out from the companies that have briefed me on their announcements.

A spinoff from Polaroid, Zink is today announcing a novel printing technology that could lead to a new category of devices. The company’s scientists have been working for about five years to develop a special kind of photo paper that needs no ink. That means they don’t need expensive printer housings or cartridges, either.

That would allow Zink to embed printers into portable devices such as digital cameras or into accessories for cell phone cameras.

Zink printers work differently from inkjet and laser printers. While inkjet and lasers form colored dots on paper by passing over spots several times, Zink printers heat up a printing element and roll the plastic paper past the print head just once.

Zink prints a 2-by-3-inch picture in 30 seconds — somewhat slower than inkjet printers — that comes out dry. It brings back the instant gratification of 1970s-era Polaroid picture, without forcing you to wait for it to develop. And it’s a much better quality print than Polaroids were.

With Zink devices, the plastic paper has layers of plastic in the middle with millions of tiny crystal dyes that can be activated by heat. If you heat the paper a certain amount, the dyes melt and you get yellow. If you heat it less but for a slightly longer time, you get magenta. If you heat it a little less and slightly longer, you get cyan. Those colors can be mixed to print any color. If you think of microwaving a frozen dinner, you get the idea.

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