Are Disposable eReaders in Our Future?

electrowetting of a surface technology

Migrated Image / University of Cincinnati

Scientists at the University of Cincinnati have figured out how to use a plain old sheet of paper as a surface for electrowetting (a process to allow the application of an electric field to a surface). It is the technology behind e-paper such as used in e-readers and similar devices. It sounds like a dream come true because, as the researchers point out, it reduces device complexity and cost.

However, it could be a huge concern since it may very well result in "disposable" one-time-use electronics.

ereader screen displays text and a pair of reading glasses lay nearby
Will these become just disposable sheets of paper?. antonioxalonso / Flickr

The University of Cincinnati announced that electrical engineering professor Andrew Steckl and UC doctoral student Duk Young Kim demonstrated that paper could be used as a flexible host material for an electrowetting device. Simply put, EW is a technology where colored droplets in a display are manipulated by an electric field to create images. Companies have been working hard to improve the technology for use in low-power reading devices and displays. Normally, EW is placed over glass, but the new breakthrough allows it to be placed over paper.

"One of the main goals of e-paper is to replicate the look and feel of actual ink on paper," the researchers stated in the ACS article. "We have, therefore, investigated the use of paper as the perfect substrate for EW devices to accomplish e-paper on paper."

person holds the comics page of a newspaper
Will the comics page one day move like cartoons?. Ollie Crafoord / Flickr Creative Common

The researchers say the result is essentially the same, which means flexible readers that are like a single sheet of paper holding an entire book or movie.

"Nothing looks better than paper for reading," said Steckl, an Ohio Eminent Scholar. "We hope to have something that would actually look like paper but behave like a computer monitor in terms of its ability to store information. We would have something that is very cheap, very fast, full-color and at the end of the day or the end of the week, you could pitch it into the trash."

However, for those with environmental concerns, there is a worrying result:

"In general, this is an elegant method for reducing device complexity and cost, resulting in one-time-use devices that can be totally disposed of after use," the researchers pointed out.

Is Disposable Really A Smart Solution?

This leads to some major questions -- what is the environmental impact of disposing of paper sporting EW technology? Exactly how would it be disposed of? Can it be recycled? What happens if people toss it in the trash? The list can go on...

On top of all that, there is a problem with the concept of disposability in the first place -- a culture of disposable goods is what's got us into this landfill-up-to-our-ears-and-plastic-in-our-bellies situation in the first place.

It might appear to be a breakthrough, but unless used responsibly, this is not a positive advancement at all.

The researchers state that this technology is 3 to 5 years away from being marketable. We guess it's quite a bit farther away than that, so there are years to still address questions like these.