Reusable paper: Is it coming?

Three weeks ago I was sitting in front of the printer at the Toronto Star waiting for an article to print out and an idea flashed into my mind. I said to a colleague standing beside me: “Wouldn’t it be great if someone developed a printer technology that can erase and reprint over top of previously used paper?”

Simply put, most of us still like using paper. For all the talk over the last decade about the era of distribute-and-print and how it will reduce our use of paper, the opposite has happened. We’re finding more stuff on the Internet and being flooded with more information every day. While in an ideal world we’d all keep this stuff neatly filed in our computers and only view documents on screen as needed, the fact is that we need to see it in front of us on hard copy. We’re using more paper today, not less. My desk at work is surrounded by piles of annual reports and prospectus filings and press releases and stories that I’ve printed out off the Web. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to print out a 50-page document so that I can have quick access to a page or two for a few minutes. Afterwards, it goes into a pile or into a recycling bin. The amount of printer paper the Toronto Star goes through is absolutely obscene.

So it was with great delight that I read the following in a blog entry at Technology Review:

Xerox is currently researching reusable paper, according to CTO Sophie Vandebroek, who discussed the project yesterday at the Emerging Technologies Conference. Printouts made on the paper would fade in a specified period of time, allowing the paper to be reused. Vandebroek compares it to lenses that take on a darker tint in the sun and then fade once they’re removed from sunlight. The technology is still very much in the research phase, but she ultimately expects the paper to be especially useful in the corporate world, where she says that 40 percent of printed documents are discarded a short time after they are printed.

This, to me, would be a wonderful thing. Sure, you’d likely pay a premium for the paper, no different than if you paid more for a re-writable CD-ROM or DVD. But it makes huge sense. My only criticism of Xerox’s approach is that it shouldn’t be the printouts that fade, it should be the printer technology that literally erases the older toner before printing something new. It could be some sort of heat-activated processes, meaning you wouldn’t be limited to a certain type of paper. Rather, an organization could invest in certain types of printers. Perhaps Xerox is working on this as well.

Researchers develop method for bioplastic foam

My Clean Break column this week takes a look at new research out of the National Research Council of Canada, which has developed a method of making new polymer blends for the production of biodegradable “green” plastics. One particular blend foams up with the injection of carbon dioxide, making it a suitable starch-based replacement for polystyrene foam cups, containers and packaging. The scientists involved are calling it a breakthrough.

Styrofoam, as we all know, has eluded most municipal recycling programs that have emerged to accommodate our throwaway culture. While reduction and recycling may be the best policy for most plastics, including plastic water bottles, the idea of a green foam to replace Styrofoam makes sense where alternatives don’t exist. At least then we can throw the foam along with scrap food into the compost bin, where it will naturally break down over weeks — not hundreds of years.

The NRC said it will be in a position to license its approach within the next 12 months.

$100 million Canadian cleantech fund in the works

Ottawa-area venture capital firm Venture Coaches is preparing to launch a $100 million cleantech fund committed to investment in Canadian companies. According to the firm, the new fund will focus on companies engaged in the research, design, development and manufacture of “energy efficient materials; components; sub-systems, systems and solutions for energy management; and innovative technologies improving fundamental processes with respect to energy and waste stream reductions.”

Money for the fund is in the process of being raised and a spokesman for Venture Coaches said the company is confident it will meet its $100 million goal.

Venture Coaches has been around since 2001, with its first fund focusing on information technology and telecommunications companies. Its new fund, appropriately called the Canadian Cleantech Fund, will be welcome in a country that tends to take a conservative approach to early-stage investing, particularly in the Canadian cleantech sector, where U.S. venture capitalists are beginning to realize there are quality deals to be had.

UPDATE: Here’s an article with some more details.

Could GM really be serious this time?

David Pogue (New York Times blog) has an interesting Q&A with GM’s Bob Lutz about the Volt concept car and GM’s commitment to electric vehicle technology. A few choice comments from Lutz:

A lot of us see it as the most interesting and most fascinating technical challenge of our whole careers. I mean, this car means more to me than anything else I’ve had anything to do with in the 42 years that I’ve been in the business. I think this is because it’s transformational.


There are cynics, and some of them are our competitors, who say, “Don’t be fooled by what General Motors is showing you. They have no intention of building this thing. This is just smoke and mirrors to take everybody’s mind off their sport utilities,” and so forth. And in order to allay that, at various stages of the program, we are going to bring in members of the media. I’m hoping that as early as spring of ‘08, we will have the first rough prototypes running, which will permit members of the media to drive 30 or 40 miles purely on batteries and listen to the internal combustion engine kick in.


My personal target still is to bring this car into the market at, you know, nicely below $30,000. And if we achieve that, it will really become a viable solution. If we have to charge 60 or 70 or 80, then it’ll be bought by Hollywood celebrities and other entertainment figures, and the odd politician for going to rallies, and that’ll be it.

These are encouraging words, and an amazing departure from GM’s stance just a year ago. I want to be one of those journalists who get to drive the first prototypes.

Interesting ethanol factoid from the WSJ

I was reading a story in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Gasoline Prices May Rise,” and the following paragraph grabbed my attention:

Another reason for steady gasoline prices: the use of ethanol as an additive to gasoline is on the rise. While crude prices have soared, ethanol prices have dropped as much as 30% in recent months and are likely to drop more, Eitan Bernstein, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co., said in a report yesterday. Ethanol costs more than 60 cents a gallon less than gasoline, and gasoline suppliers can offset some of the rise in crude-oil prices by blending their gasoline with small amounts of the cheaper fuel.

Would be curious to find out how much of that affordability of ethanol is due to government incentives (mind you, it’s not like the oil industry doesn’t receive its own subsidies). In any event, claims that ethanol will contribute to higher gasoline prices are being proven wrong. The next step is to show that cellulosic ethanol can follow the same cost curve.