Sunday, 6 December 2009

Paper Science

I’m guessing that not many people in the blogosphere will know much about the art and science of papermaking so here is a quick guide. Just what exactly is paper? I will tell it from the point of view of a chemist ;D
It is composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen which of course means it is a carbohydrate. This is in the form of cellulose which itself is a long chain linear polymer of β-(1 4)-D-glucopyranose units in 4C1 conformation (i.e.glucose molecules)

Cellulose is found in plants as microfibrils, and is mostly prepared from wood pulp.
It is also produced in a highly hydrated form by some bacteria (for example, Acetobacter xylinum). So as you can now imagine, the chemistry, physics and process of papermaking is quite complex and very interesting I assure you.
Paper is such an important piece of our lives, but what do we really know about it? Papermaking began in China back in 200 BC. Chinese papermakers used old chopped-up fishing nets, tree bark, and scraps of linen and hemp to make the world's very first paper. Chinese papermaking spread slowly but steadily all over the world, from Asia into Africa and Europe. Soon just about everyone knew how to make paper. Still, there wasn't a lot of paper around, since making it gobbled up a lot of paper-making material. Early paper was made of rags, and rags were hard to come by. Ironically, when the disease called the Plague or Black Death killed millions of people in Europe, tons of clothing and rags became available - at just about the time the printing press was invented. Suddenly, more books were printed, people became better educated, and these better-educated people scratched their heads, trying to figure out a substance that might provide even more paper-making material.
We still make paper using that same basic formula. We just vary the kinds of wood fiber and energy, and the techniques of bringing it all together, to get just the kinds of paper we want. There are certainly many types of paper - newspapers, school books and writing stationery; envelopes, boxes, packing and wrapping paper; paper toweling, tissue, and personal hygiene products. Not a day goes by that we don't use paper in dozens of ways. But papermaking today, creating all the kinds of paper we use in such huge quantities, is a science as well as an art. Engineers and technicians speed things up, using computers to help guide factory machines that can produce huge rolls of paper at more than 45 miles an hour. (Thanks to TAPPI). Here is a photo of our dept pre 2004 before we merged with our textile friends. 
And here is a photo which graced the entrance to our building. Sadly it was taken down and I miss it :( I hope to see it pop up again somewhere. Hopefully in one of our museums.  I shall keep looking............ 
Do you think we will need as much paper in the future as we become increasingly dependent on modern technology? Hopefully people will still treasure books as they read from their kindles. Of course we will always need tissue paper. A post in the near future will be about the biology and chemistry of paper recycling which is what I do. 

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