Now You Know Fridays: The promising future of un-printing

image credit: flickr/Jennifer Balaco

Our new Now You Know Fridays series scours the Web for the most interesting news in tech to add to your digital biz know-how!

We live a digital world where reports, memos, even to-do lists are all available electronically. Yet even when there seems like no need to print, the Associated Press found that up until the recent economic downturn, our “Web-connected, wireless world was using far more paper than it did before trashing its typewriters.”

How could that be possible? In fact, The New York Times reports that even some of today’s tech savvy students are clinging to textbooks claiming that while “e-textbooks are good, it’s tempting to go on Facebook, and it can strain your eyes.”

Luckily, clever scientists in the United Kingdom are coming to our rescue. They have come up with a way to remove toner from paper, making it possible to reuse five times before recycling it.

The University of Cambridge researchers are calling it the un-printer, because it uses the same technology as traditional laser printers, only in reverse.  Regular printers use lasers to heat toner, a mixture of carbon powder and plastic polymer. This goo is then deposited on the paper, becoming a vehicle for your masterful prose.

The un-printing process uses “extremely short (nanoseconds-long) pulses of green laser to heat the toner on the paper and remove it by vaporizing it,” according to The Future of Things.

The researchers tried out various laser wave lengths, including ultraviolet, visible and infrared. Being geeks – we say that with admiration – they also played around with ultrafast and long-pulsed lasers. You can check it out for yourself in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Since it turns out that reusing paper is easier on the environment than recycling it, that’s probably why the folks at Tree Hugger are giving the un-printer some ink.  “Wide use of this technology could have a huge impact,” they predict.  “Reusing paper could reduce emissions by 50 to 80 percent over paper recycling.” Recycling involves trucking it to a plant for sorting, mixing it with water to make a slurry, and then spreading it with huge rollers to make “fresh” paper.  All of this requires energy, which produces greenhouse gases.


The technology is still in the lab phase, but the Cambridge researchers are about to build a prototype that could be used in the office.

Of course, the un-printer isn’t the only game in town. Japanese manufacturer Toshiba already has a special toner called “e-blue” which fades away to nothing under the right type of light (you can watch a demonstration on YouTube).

“However unlike the Toshiba invention, the technology developed by the Cambridge researchers can work with any toner or paper,” says The Future of Things.

So while you may never eliminate your office paper budget, you could certainly chop it back substantially – and save a few trees while you’re at it.

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  • Rodrigo

    Amazing idea !!! i need one of those….

  • David Solomon

    The only problem I see here is the high cost of labor to take the sheets of paper sort them into stacks to feed the un-printer. I also see a problem with feeding the printer itself since the paper has probably been handled and will jam the printer. Will it be really worth the cost of labor and the frustration?

  • Paul Croxton

    Great idea but how about the extra energy used in running the un-printing process? We still burn natural resources to produce power don’t forget. Perhaps we should burn scrap paper instead? 😉

  • Mitchell Allen

    Whatever happened to just taking that paper home and using the back for grocery lists, scribbling and making origami?



  • Jeff

    While interesting technology, I just don’t see it practically useful. When I receive a stack of papers say, at a meeting, I doodle, scribble notes in ball-point pen, roll up the paper, staple it, fold it, jam in my laptop case, etc. My guess is that this is exactly what happens to 75% of paper in a standard office environment. So, I suppose this process will work quite well assuming no human being actually comes in contact with the paper prior to ink removal. Let’s work harder to develop inexpensive e-ink substrates instead of continuing to fiddle with paper – it’s an obsolete technology anyway.

  • KatherineLn

    Good point, Mitch.

    I want to know if this machine will also remove coffee stains, wrinkles/folds, doodling, and heal staple wounds.

  • Paul Croxton

    If it could actually make coffe, doodle and practice origami I’d buy it tomorrow and sack my PA.

  • Chris


    If 2/3 of your PA’s time goes to doodling and origami then you should probably sack them regardless :)

  • Paul Croxton

    It was of course a joke Chris, but anyway the point is that necessity is the mother of invention – and this device doesn’t appear to be a necessity. As for my PA.. well… 😉

  • Rachel

    Interesting concept. Could the fact that we’re using more paper be related to the exponential increase in information since the typewriter era?

  • Philippe

    Great article. I think I’ll print it. :-)

  • Ricardo

    Not the first time I see this… Japan, March:

  • Michael D

    Can I take all my bills and de-ink the total? How about shining that special light on the IRS?

  • Vinod danekar

    Nice to know it. Go on scientists. Digital media can not replace papers fully.

  • Triple 3

    Long live paper!