Paper: The Material of the Future

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The invention of paper may be some two millennia old, but we are not done tinkering with it yet.

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Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

The invention of paper may be some two millennia old, but we are not done tinkering with it yet. Even in our post-paper age (yeah, right, Tim Maly writes at Wired), the humble flat sheet of fiber is still taking on improvements. What can modern technology do for paper? Make it waterproof, magnetic and anti-microbial, of course!

That's the outcome of a new nanotechnology coating developed by scientists at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa, Italy. As Rebecca Boyle at Popular Science explains:

The cellulose fibers are wetted with an acrylic solution containing manganese ferrite nanoparticles, which are magnetic. When it gets wet, the mixture forms a nano-shell around each individual fiber, rendering the fiber water-repellent. Scientists can change the composition of the nanoparticles to make it more or less magnetically responsive, or to add other attributes, like perhaps fluorescence. Add some colloidal silver, and it could be antibacterial.

Even with this coating, the paper will still behave like regular paper, able to take on ink and fold. How can it both take on ink and be waterproof? I asked Despina Fragouli, one of the lead researchers, and she explained that the treatment combines "wax particles with the polymer. In this way the paper becomes 'sticky,' ... with high adhesion, and hydrophobic. So the ink is strongly adhered on it, while water cannot disintegrate the cellulose fibers."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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