Shaahin Amini, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at the Bourns College of Engineering, University of California, Riverside, spent many hours looking into a microscope and scanning a maze of black-and-white crosshatched lines, tubes, and beads made of nickel, aluminum, and carbon magnified 3,800 times. Suddenly an animal shape appeared to him. He zoomed in further. Was it a roadrunner? A sheep? No — it’s a 0.05-mm giraffe.

Amini spent a few hours using Photoshop to add coloring, and then submitted the piece to the Science as Art competition at the 2012 Materials Research Society (MRS) Spring Meeting in San Francisco. Amini’s piece, one of about 150 entries, was selected as one of the first-place winners.

Amini’s research area is the nucleation and growth kinetics of graphene layers from molten metals. Graphene is a single-atom thick carbon crystal with important properties, including superior electrical and heat conductivity, mechanical strength, and unique optical absorption, which could have widespread use in electronics.

The feature that Amini turned into a giraffe was created during the melting process of a nickel, aluminum, and carbon mixture. As the molten alloy solidified, the nickel and aluminum formed the body of the giraffe while the carbon was rejected and crystallized as a graphite cover. After further cooling, the cover wrinkled, due to less contraction than the metallic substrate, and created a network of creases resembling the furrowed skin of a giraffe.