Johannes Gutenberg might have judged the folks at Zink Imaging as heretics. After all, they have removed ink from the publishing process, eliminating what has been a fundamental element of printing since the first Bible rolled off the press in 1456. Instead, the scientists at the Waltham, Mass., firm focused their genius on the other key part of the printing paradigm -- paper.

"The magic is in the paper," says Stephen Herchen, chief technology officer at Zink, which is short for "zero ink."

Herchen says Zink started as a project inside Polaroid in the 1990s before the storied camera company spun out Zink as a fully independent entity in 2005. The technology invented at Polaroid and perfected by Zink uses millions of colorless dye crystals layered under polymer-coated paper, making the prints durable enough for long-lasting photos. When the crystals are heated at different temperatures at specific intervals, they melt onto the paper in the traditional cyan, magenta, yellow and black used by ink-jet, laser and other printing devices.

At the Demo Conference in California earlier this year, Herchen showed this reporter how it worked by lighting a match and holding it under the sample blank white paper to get the crystals to melt into a rainbow of colours.

According to Zink's CTO, like a lot of scientific teams involved in breakthrough projects, the 50 chemists and physicists involved at Polaroid and then Zink went through a long process of trial and error to create the right combination of molecules that could be controlled on the paper. And the final result had the look and feel of a regular photograph, he says.

Another upside is that consumers will no longer have to dispose of environmentally iffy ink cartridges, Herchen says. And pricing will be less than US$2 per 10-sheet pack, the company says.

IDC analyst Ron Glaz says the technology is certainly innovative, but he says not to expect it to replace a desktop or network printer anytime soon. "It's a niche product for a niche market," he says.

Scott Wicker, Zink's chief marketing officer, doesn't disagree. What sets Zink apart is that it "enables printing where it doesn't currently exist," he says, explaining that without the need for ink cartridges or ribbons, printers can now be built into small, mobile devices such as digital cameras.

Wicker says the company will control the manufacture of the Zink printer paper, but partners will build and distribute printer products, an approach Glaz says could improve the likelihood of Zink's success. Wicker adds there are no restrictions on the paper size that Zink can produce, although he says that the first paper to ship with products late this year will be 2-x-3 inches.