Friday, October 21, 2005

Buckypaper and the End of Print Literature

Scribal Terror has a link to this article in Science Daily about buckypaper. I first heard about buckypaper a few years ago, but in a much different (and more significant) context.

Though it is not mentioned in the article, one of the potential uses for buckypaper that I heard discussed in those days was to make buckybooks (sorry, I have no link -- I heard this long ago). The idea, as I remember it, was to have paper made entirely of buckyballs that were dark on one side and light on the other. The "off" setting for the balls would be for the light side to be facing out. When current was run through the buckyballs, they would flip over so that the dark side was showing. By selectively turning some on and turning some off, you could create writing on the page (much as a marquee sign does by turning lights on and off).

The article talks about a lot of less important uses, like body armor, shielding airplanes from lightning strikes, etc. While all those things are nice, none of them will change the world. Buckypaper has the potential to change the world as significantly as Gutenberg's printing press.

Until now, electronic books have not really taken off. We are willing to access short texts on the internet, but longer texts we like in book form. The book has dominated literacy since it superceded the scroll, and survived through both manuscript culture and print culture. The computer screen does not have the potential to supercede the book because it is too difficult to carry around and is uncomfortable on the eyes and hands.

Buckypaper could be what the e-book has been waiting for. Imagine you hold in your hands a book. It looks like a normal book, except perhaps there is a thin battery and USB port in the binding. When you open the book, you see that the pages are blank. Just page after page of nothing.

Now, imagine you go online and download a novel onto a jump drive. You insert the drive into the USB port, upload the novel -- and suddenly the words appear on the page. Now you have a novel in a comfortable, portable form.

But wait -- you are finished with that novel ... what do you do? Instead of putting it on the shelf, you would simple store the file on your personal computer and upload a different novel into your buckybook. In other words, you could store your entire personal library on your keychain, and have just one or two tabula rasa books on your shelf. The cost of printing becomes nil. Books with short runs are no longer more expensive than mass market paperbacks (indeed, pricing would probably be inverted). Bibles and other censored texts could be stored in files and wiped from the buckybook before any censoring officials saw them. It would also be possible for your book -- that sheaf of papers you have in your hand -- to become truly interactive, with links like a web page.

Of course, buckybooks would be expensive at first, but I would think that a cost comparable to a laptop computer, say a few thousand dollars, would be marketable. Universities could require all students to use them and practically eliminate print books. If your local public library didn't have a book -- why not download it from the Library of Congress? Even rare print books could be scanned and turned into cheap facsimile editions, allowing for early training in manuscript paleography to take place without excessive cost or the risk of damage to manuscripts.

Sure, body armor and airplane covering is fine, but I prefer applications that change the world.


  1. Very intriguing--it's got my vote...

  2. Incidentally, it's another good example of the positive benefits to society of defense spending by the military/industrial complex. Liberals can complain all they like about the expense of the Cold War/Space Race, etc. but all that money laid the groundwork for today's wired lifestyle...

  3. Anonymous5:10 AM

    Incidentally, this is another good example of the author not knowing what they are talking about. You mixed up two unrelated things - "smart paper" with image-forming rotating balls in tiny capsules, and "buckypaper" a flat sheet of carbon nanotubes. There are no buckyball fullerene in "buckypaper", just as there is none in "smart paper" - the fullerene molecules are too tiny to be seen as pixels or be colored white on one side and black on another - en masse they are yellow powder, but color is a concept not applicable to a single "buckyball" molecule.

    The only superficial similarity between "smart paper" displays and "buckypaper" material is that they are both flat sheets.

    Humanitarians... ;)

  4. Ah, well, as I said, I read it long ago. Strange, though, that I remember reading of it in the context of buckyballs; Buckminster fullerene doesn't tend to intrude into my life frequently.

    Do you have a link to share with the details of what has happened with smart paper in the years since I first read of the idea?

  5. Anonymous8:27 AM

    The electronic paper material is called e-ink and an e-book reader embodying it has been out in Japan for several years (Sony Librié) but was a total flop. Sony has just announced at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas that they will release a reader using the e-ink material in the U.S. this spring.