A breakthrough technique discovered by IBM has yielded an interesting application: the ability to "paint" and "sculpt" images thousands of times smaller than a grain of salt.

So what did scientist decide to sculpt first with their new atomic-scale paintbrush? The world, of course.

This 3-D map of the globe is so small that 1,000 of them would fit on a grain of salt. IBM researchers used an extremely small silicon tip, about 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil tip, to create patterns and structures as small as 15 nanometers across.

The researchers also created a 3-D replica of the Matterhorn, a famous Alpine mountain, and 2-D images of the IBM logo and a simple pattern. A video released by IBM details how it is done. Skip to 1:14 to see examples of their artwork.

The new patterning technique has implications beyond miniscule art displays, the researchers say. It actually represents a breakthrough for nano-scale pattern imaging, significantly reducing the cost and complexity of the process and possibly opening the door for cheaper and more easily manufactured nano-sized objects for future electronics.

"Advances in nanotechnology are intimately linked to the existence of high-quality methods and tools for producing nanoscale patterns and objects on surfaces," physicist Armin Knoll of IBM Research – Zurich said. "With its broad functionality and unique 3D patterning capability, this nanotip-based patterning methodology is a powerful tool for generating very small structures."

The research is detailed in a recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials.