Printed documents may self-erase in future

'Erasable paper' can be reused, reduces waste

Printed matter is literally disappearing at Palo Alto Research Center, Inc. (PARC). In partnership with Xerox Research Centre of Canada since early 2004, PARC scientists have been developing "erasable paper," temporary documents that self-erase within a matter of hours.

Although the computer interface has become more ubiquitous in daily activities, researchers at PARC discovered that "for some reason people still like paper," Eric Shrader, PARC area manager and project lead, said. Shrader is a mechanical engineer who has developed other products such as electronic paper -- a low-cost display medium -- and cost-saving printing technologies for circuit boards and solar cells.

Stemming from PARC's focus on corporate ethnography, Shrader discovered, from self-reports and from sifting through recycle bins, the types of documents that office workers print and then throw away or recycle on the same day. Such documents included daily calendars, e-mails and reference materials relevant for a limited period of time.

"I think the biggest 'aha' moment was at the very beginning, when we realized that so much of what people print is only temporary."

On average, people in offices print approximately 1,200 pages per month, of which 25 percent is discarded on the same day.

"I wouldn't want to be in the business of selling file cabinets any more. People are thinking about the archive as something that the computer people keep and not that the filing people keep," Shrader said.

Erasable paper, also known as a transient document, is exactly like regular printer paper but coated with a molecule that changes color when exposed to light. Shrader compared it to photochromic glasses, which darken in tint when people go outside.

The printer, now being developed solely as an attachment to standard printers, prints by exposing the paper to a UVB light source. Researchers are also conceptually developing a pen that writes on the erasable paper by using an internal light source.

Images remain on the erasable paper for a solid eight hours before gradually disappearing, but Shrader notes that they are still refining that part of the project. Initial feedback indicates that people would prefer the image to last longer, or to last until an undetermined point at which they no longer need the document. But Shrader wants to avoid options or variation in how long the image lasts because it would require people to make more conscious choices about printing.

Running the paper through the printer will also erase the current image, as heat is applied in the printer, which stimulates the erasing process.

To distinguish the erasable paper from regular printer paper, and also to identify it for reuse, researchers have given it a yellow tint. The reusable life of the paper depends on its treatment, but is potentially limitless. The paper is robust and does not need to be treated or stored differently than regular paper.

"You can reuse it as long as you can keep from stapling or crumpling it," Shrader said. In their own experiments, PARC researchers have reused a single sheet of paper between 50 and 100 times. "Most people think they'll wreck it after 20 times."

The simple concept behind the printer eliminates the need for ink and toner in printers, which contribute significantly to the cost of printing. Shrader anticipates the printer attachment will add only approximately 10 to 20 percent to the cost of regular printers.

And although the projected cost of the erasable paper is greater than regular paper, in the long term Shrader expects people to save money because of its reusability.

Beyond financial savings, Shrader predicts that the biggest impact will be the benefit to the environment. Aside from the reusability of the paper, the inkless and tonerless printers eliminate the waste generated from regular printers. In addition, fewer materials are needed, which thus reduces the amount of carbon emissions generated from transportation.

"From a life-cycle, carbon-credit analysis, we're saving on a bunch of different fronts," Shrader said.

However, erasable paper -- currently in prototype phase -- won't be out on the market for a while, he added.


Posted by A.L., a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 2, 2008 at 6:36 pm

This is a great idea. However, I wish the brains at PARC would deal with another fundamental barrier to paperless office: one big reason people print so much is that printing is still usually the easiest, least time-consuming way to deal with paper tasks or even moving the information from one arena to another.

Anything that requires interfacing to transport documents for different tasks usually means solving time-consuming technical problems. For example, I still don't use many functions on my new computer that I used to before the operating system upgrade that made many of my peripherals non-functional!

The last time I was able to easily send FAX'es directly from my computer was TWO or THREE operating system upgrades ago - maybe more, it was more than one COMPUTER ago - I haven't had the time to spend setting up that functionality again and learning something new, it's just easier and faster to print and send via the FAX machine. (When I say I haven't had the time, I would point out that solving these problems often involves an amount of time that is impossible to estimate beforehand.)

Another problem is signing letters to FAX. If I want to sign electronically, that's another technical task to resolve. I used to cut and paste my signature, but my system upgrade made my drafting software (into which I had scanned my signature) not work right, and I haven't been able to install the upgrade, because I actually bought two upgrades that I never had time to install, and can't find the first one (which I need to be allowed to install the second one). I haven't been able to use my scanner since the last system upgrade, but it's on my long list of technical problems to solve...but I can't just scan in my signature again to a different software program because my scanner is temporarily out of commission...

Please nevermind the details in the paragraph above, they are a few examples of, sadly, many.

*****The point is, the ONE task people will make sure they can do on the computer, without fuss, without wasting time fiddling with the technology, is print.********

So often, even if there is a nifty electronic way to handle a task, they will still print first and then manage the document/information, because printing is the one task that won't require oodles of TIME to resolve technical problems, learn something new (all the more frustrating if one had learned how to do a task a certain way and then some upgrade negated it), or buy new peripherals (or accessories to make them work right) or interface equipment.

To the people at PARC - IMO, the best way to think about paperless office is not in terms of paper use, but in terms of people's TIME. Solve the time sinks in using technology, and you will find the way to paperless office. (At least, it would work for me.)

All that aside, I find that my ability to review a draft is better somehow when it's on paper - I find more mistakes. This paper would be EXCELLENT for multiple drafts with minor changes to letters. If you could just pop it back in the printer, even with type on it already (which I'm assuming will disappear as the new type goes on?), that would be fabulous. Does the pen they are talking about disappear, so that hand revisions would also disappear? So long it is reasonably priced, it would be a wonderful alternative. The problem I see is in people using regular pens accidentally to make revisions and ruining the paper for reuse.

Posted by Peter, a resident of another community
on Jan 2, 2008 at 6:44 pm

And it would be great for miscreants, perhaps even those in government, who want to erase their tracks.

Posted by janette, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 3, 2008 at 5:16 am


I use, which lets me fax documents directly from my computer and receive them as email attachments with no fax machine necessary. Word, tif, jpg, pretty much whatever is acceptable to it. I have used it for several years with no problems. It is also very cheap, about $10 a month and 5 cents a page. Of course, you can scan in anything into jpg or tif, etc.

I don't know what to suggest about your apparently lousy drafting software or scanner. I have an hp 3210 all-in-one printer, scanner, copier which was quite cheap, less than $200 I think (of course, they get you on the ink.)

It scans beautifully. I was able to scan tiny 1 1/2 inch sq 1940s photos for a family history project and enlarge them to excellent 4x6s. Copying ditto. It also comes with free software for adjusting the scans, which I used on some old color photos that had degraded, or to adjust exposures.

In several years of use, I think it has jammed maybe twice, and was a cinch to remove the paper from.

The software installs from a cd or the hp website. Just on principal, I never install updates from anyone.

I find that most people really do not care if something is actually signed. If it is necessary, I plop a signature onto the document with Paint.

One thing I wish computer manufacturers would do is halt their march towards notebook screens that cannot display a full page of "paper" without it being reduced to a tiny font. This trend towards making screens short and wide and (gak) reflective because that's apparently suitable for games ignores the customers who use these to create documents. I have stocked up on a couple of old Pavilions with the larger screens from ebay and just hope I can keep getting them repaired.

Posted by A.L., a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 3, 2008 at 11:40 am

Thanks for the suggestions. I actually have software that worked quite well, and I hear my current OS allows FAXing, my problem is just time - every little upgrade or change results in lots of things that have to be fixed to get them working again. My KVM switch doesn't work right anymore with the system upgrades - I spent $100 on a new mouse, which solved the problem for all of a few weeks until I upgraded the other computer. Now in order to switch between the computers, I have to restart them several times again. Grrr. There are literally dozens and dozens of examples. *****Who has TIME to keep ironing out all these problems?***** I still use my old Quadra for accounting because it's the only computer in the house that has had all the problems worked out of it and I can reliably get something done without any FIDDLING. (BTW, I am a Mac user, can't blame this on PC's.)

Posted by A.L., a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 3, 2008 at 11:41 am

Correction - "Now in order to switch between the computers, I have to restart them several times a DAY" (not "again")

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