Paper 2.0 – Pushing the technological limits

Published 22 November 2019
Thanks to its omnipresent character as a material, paper continues to play an important role in countless innovations – just as it did in the past. It was recyclable paper that lined the hot-air balloon used in the first manned flight in 18th century France. And it was paper that gave us the punch cards for our earliest electronic computers.

Similarly, some of the most creative areas of innovation in the paper business today stem from the very revolution that was supposed to kill it: the migration to an online lifestyle.

“Chief among the drivers is the explosion of e-commerce,” says Paul Krochak, research director for paper technology at the RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

“What’s so interesting is this incredible growth in packaging materials. This is really one of the coolest things happening in the industry right now.”

The push to find better ways of packaging, Krochak points out, is tightly linked to another global cultural change – sustainability. Given paper’s unique capacity as a renewable, recyclable resource, Krochak says it is well-positioned to be at the heart of efforts to replace plastic and other oil-based synthetics. His colleagues are working in an area of research, which they call ‘Paper 2.0’, pushing the technological limits of using paper in this way.

The structures with a Sci-Fi feel already developed include paper that can stretch to double its length, paper that can act like clothing fabric, and paper yarn. Several companies are close to developing what might be the Holy Grail of the sustainability market – a paper drinking bottle to replace the single-use plastic variety. “When we talk about sustainability and replacing plastics, there’s this beautiful functionality of paper which most people don’t know is possible,” Krochak says. “It’s sustainable, recyclable, circular, and we believe that it really can make the world a better place.”

More than words

Besides being thoroughly useful in our daily lives, paper also satisfies the human yearning for aesthetics in their lives. Paper can produce a powerful sensory experience, as anyone in the high-end, luxury paper market will confirm. Silk paper used in a brochure conveys, without using a single word, a sense of opulence, while rough, uncoated paper evokes the feeling of something timeless and organic. And, it is quite simply beautiful, as anyone who has ever folded a paper airplane knows.

Its tactile and visual qualities also account for paper’s growing popularity as an art medium over the past decade. While traditional disciplines like origami and paper-cutting are strong in Asia, the Western art world has seen an upsurge in interest in collage, papier mâché, paper sculpture and installation art. The trend has put new events on the cultural calendar, such as the annual ‘Art on Paper’ fair in New York and paper-devoted gallery shows in London, Brussels and elsewhere. 

“‘Nuance’ is a word artists often use when explaining paper’s appeal, a surprising quality to attribute to such a workaday material,” Ariela Gittlen writes in Artsy magazine. “It’s extremely versatile: It can be featherweight and translucent like tissue paper, or heavy and rigid like papier-mâché.” 

Meanwhile, communication paper is undergoing a tech revolution of its own. The emerging technique of invisible photonic printing, for example, promises an unprecedented level of document security. And researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are developing conductive inks that can cheaply connect surfaces to the online world, letting ordinary paper act like a touch screen or digitally record written notes. We may soon be able to click ‘like’ and ‘share’ on a printed newspaper or scribble our thoughts on an app-connected Post-it. 

With innovation happening at such a fast pace, it’s impossible to know what twists and turns our culture and habits will take in the coming years. But one thing is clear: paper is here to stay and its influence will shine on.