Science of the Unseen Banner

Erik Brunvand

Silicon Menagerie

These are micro-scale multi-layer images on the surface of silicon integrated circuits. The basic idea of these “silicon prints” is to use layers of materials that would normally be used to fabricate electrical structures on a chip to instead make images. The images on those chips range from 300 microns to 500 microns on a side, and the entire chip area is 3000 x 1500 microns (3.0 x 1.5mm). For comparison, a human hair is around 100 microns in diameter. On these chips the rectangular gridded structures are actual digital circuits. In this case the circuits are small static random access memories (SRAMs) that were being tested for use in a Digital VLSI course. The striped features on the edge of the chips are the gold bonding wires that connect the chip electrically to the integrated circuit package.

The basic process for these silicon prints incorporates a number of different metallization layers on an integrated circuit, each separated by an insulating material, in a similar way to layering different types and colors of ink in the production of traditional fine-art prints. The metal layers each have different visual properties so once these properties are understood, a multi-layer silicon print can be made using these layers of materials.

Even though it is often prohibited, engineers routinely sneak their names, or small cartoon-like images and logos onto their chips (typically in a single “color” or layer). This activity has direct parallels with graffiti art and tagging. The artwork, nearly impossible to see with the human eye, is present yet requires additional equipment to be seen properly by the viewer. This directly challenges notions of scale, and of the seen and unseen. I have created and fabricated these images using multiple integrated circuit layers to increase their visual complexity, and to create parallels with traditional fine-art printmaking. These images are superfluous to the function of the chip and, like graffiti taggers, utilize empty blank spaces as a surface for the images.

Media Used: Photomicrograph of silicon print (image on silicon).

Erik Brunvand is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, where his research and teaching interests include the design of application-specific computers, graphics processors, asynchronous systems, and VLSI.

As an artist, he is fascinated by connections between arts and technology, and by how the benefits of these connections flow in both directions. This interest in arts/tech collaborations has led him to explore and show a variety of kinetic mixed media artworks, many involving electronic control. He is also a printmaker, and co-founder of Saltgrass Printmakers, a non-profit printmaking studio and gallery in Salt Lake City since 2003. He works in relief (woodcut, photopolymer), letterpress, etching, experimental media (including electronics and micro-silicon art), and kinetic mixed media.