Think the news is shocking now? Wait for electrified paper

Today, Sept. 4, is Newspaper Carrier Day. This designated day is pretty much a United States celebration. It honors Barney Flaherty, who was hired by Benjamin Day of the New York Sun in 1833 as the first paperboy. But it also honors all present newspaper carriers. As a former newspaper boy for The Daily Sentinel and the father of former newspaper carriers for The Daily Sentinel, I humbly accept that honor.

Paper is pretty cool stuff. It was developed more than 2,000 years ago in China. Think about the significant cultural change that came with the advent of paper. For the first time, a relatively cheap exchange of information was possible in the form of letters, newspapers and books. It was an inexpensive, versatile platform for writing, printing, packaging, cleaning and even food. Today, it is about to undergo yet another revolution.

Paper is made by mechanically and chemically crushing various fibrous plants and draining a dilute suspension of the resulting fibers through a screen. A mat of randomly interwoven fibers is deposited and then the water is removed by pressing and drying. The individual fibers may be as small as 1/2,500th of an inch. Between these fibers are tiny pores of variable size. Of course, some papers have smaller pores than others. This gives them their characteristics for writing and absorbency.

But these networks of fibers and pores create porous surface areas. When ink, traditionally made of carbon particles in suspension, is applied to the paper, the tiny carbon particles are drawn into the pores by capillary action. Capillary action is the tendency of liquid molecules to cling to each other. But the ink eventually sticks to the fibers, and in the pores, electrostatically. Electrostatic reactions work like invisible magnets.

When I was little, my grandparents had two magnets that were black-and-white Scotty dogs. I could place one under their glass coffee table and one on top. Each dog would make the other one move about. If I placed the face of one dog toward the tail of the other dog, the like poles of the magnets would repel each other and I could make one dog chase the other.

The really exciting thing, at least when I was only about 5, was this: If I brought the two dogs together facing each other, at some point they would jump together and kiss! This was because the opposite poles were facing each other. In the same way, ink clings tightly to the paper fibers because the carbon particles and fibers have opposite charges.

Now, Dr. Yi Cui of Stanford University has developed an ink made of carbon nanotubes. Nanotubes are molecules, in this case of carbon, arranged in a tubular fashion. Nanotubes have extremely tiny diameters, as small as 1/50,000th of a human hair, but they can be more than 100 million times longer than they are wide.

These characteristics somehow give them unique thermal, optical and electronic properties. Just how they actually function in these capacities is still not completely understood.

But when this new nanotube ink is applied to paper, the paper provides a flexible, but strong, scaffolding to support the nanotubes. Because nanotubes can conduct electricity, the sheet of nanotube-impregnated paper becomes electrically conductive as well. That means that if multiple sheets of ink-treated paper are pressed together, and then submerged in an electrolyte solution, the nanotubes act as electrodes and can store electricity.

The resulting product is not only conductive, but thin, flexible and strong. Initial studies suggest that a kilogram of treated paper could power a 40-watt light bulb for an hour.

Treated paper could one day be used to form flexible, thin batteries into unique shapes. They could then power any number of devices such as cell phones, computers or even clothing. Tomorrow’s newspaper may bring you some very shocking news.

It is not yet clear what effect that development might have on newspaper carriers.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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