We recently posted about e-ink and e-paper as elements of a technological revolution that didn’t quite happen—an assessment that seems fair in light of how these technologies have measured up as publishing alternatives for books, magazines, and newspapers.
This doesn’t mean, however, that something revolutionary might not be brewing in ongoing efforts to make a single sheet of digitized paper do what it takes reams of conventionally printed and bound paper to do. Here are a couple of very recent developments along with some mind-stretching metrics about the broad objective that e-ink and e-paper are meant to accomplish.
Tree-based paper reflects light—that’s how we’re able to read it. But, what if a sheet of paper could generate and transmit light of its own? According to a report by Geek.com, researchers at Umeå University in Sweden claim they have accomplished this by layering multiple pieces of ordinary paper into a single sheet that acts as a self-illuminating and flexible display.
Solutions sprayed onto the layers with a handheld airbrush enable the sheet to conduct electricity and give off light. The researchers say that the technology, which they call light-emitting electrochemical cell (LEC), produces displays that are as bright as LED (light emitting diode) and OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens. The displays are also said to be easy to recycle (although one commenter to the Geek article questions just how recyclable the multi-layered, chemically infused sheet would be). Newspapers, flyers, and store signage are among the “obvious applications” for LEC, according to Geek.
Who didn’t spend many happy childhood hours with Etch A Sketch, the generation-spanning drawing toy? Etch A Sketch is m-paper (mechanical), not the e-kind, but the pictures it creates aren’t very different from the images that researchers at University of Tokyo have produced in experiments aimed at making e-paper writeable as well as readable.
Phys.org reports that the Tokyo team have taken an old e-ink technology and given it a new twist with nanoparticles. In the 1970s, at Xerox PARC and elsewhere, scientists made rudimentary e-ink displays with embedded microparticles that were black on one side and white on the other. These could be selectively rotated within the display to show light or dark, forming letters and images.
The University of Tokyo researchers found that adding magnetized nanoparticles makes it possible to “draw” dark lines on the surface of the display with a magnetized stylus that flips the black side of the microparticles up. The image stays there until an electrical charge is applied to clear the display.
Other on-screen writing technologies exist—think of Graffiti, the writing recognition system for the old Palm devices, or of apps like Notes Plus and INKredible for the iPad. But, the Tokyo researchers say that “electronic whiteboards” made with nanoparticle-enhanced e-ink can be affordable, durable, and scalable enough to replace many of the handwritten tasks that people still have to perform. The Phys.org story says the researchers believe that eventually, their work could contribute to a world that is much less dependent on traditional paper.
This would come in very handy if, for some reason known only to science fiction, the world decided it needed to print all of the information it has accumulated on the Internet. A story from Business Insider says that doing it would take 136 billion pieces of standard 8" x 11" sheets of paper—a stack about 8,300 miles high. A pair of students at the University of Leicester in the UK figured it out by starting with a count of Wikipedia pages, extrapolating from that quantity to an estimate for pages on the Internet as a whole, and calculating the paper equivalent (including the number of trees required).
Business Insider calls it a “thought experiment.” A similar one would be to work out the time it would take to display all of those pages on a single sheet of e-paper. Either way, we’d be defeated by sheer volume. That sounds like an admonition to make wise use of both ways of putting whatever we think of as “ink” onto (or into) the surfaces we now recognize as “paper.”