Their method could offer environmental benefits, since it requires less energy than traditional paper production from wood pulp and does not need water
UAEU students seek to make paper from sand
It was more than 4,000 years ago that papyrus, a thick paper-like material, was first produced in Ancient Egypt.
Papyrus production depended upon what was available locally, in this case the aquatic flowering plant Cyperus papyrus.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that a potential step forward in modern-day paper-making also involves the use of resources available in the area of production. In this case, students in the UAE are using sand.
A project by the students at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) in Al Ain aims to produce paper without wood pulp, using instead sand and pellets of a polymer, a material made from repeated chemical units joined together.
Their method could offer environmental benefits, since it requires less energy than traditional paper production from wood pulp. It also does not need water, an advantage in countries such as the UAE that face severe demands on their water resources, and in turn it does not generate waste water.
Postgraduate student Sidra Ahmed and undergraduate Rukshana Veetil, both from UAEU's chemical engineering department, are perfecting the technique, which takes inspiration from Rockstock, a commercially produced type of paper that is 80 per cent ground-down stone waste and 20 per cent polymer.
Rockstock is described as biodegradable and its production is said to require little energy and no water.
Because sand is readily available in the UAE, the students came up with the idea of using sand in place of rock.
“There is nowhere in the world where paper is made from sand,” Ms Ahmed said.
“The aim is to be able to create paper out of a sustainable resource, sand, which not only will save trees and reduce water consumption, but boost the economy of the country, since paper could then be created using a local natural resource.”
The students are looking to overcome a number of technical hurdles in the process they have developed, which involves making small pellets of the sand and polymer mixture and trying to roll it out.
“We are in this phase right now and while we are still figuring out some challenges, we are very hopeful,” said Ms Ahmed.
They are looking to try to bleach the sand, as this would allow lighter-coloured paper to be produced.
Aside from the environmental benefits, the method is thought to offer advantages in terms of the paper it generates. Ms Ahmed said it was likely to be tear-resistant, durable and, thanks to the properties of the polymer, potentially water-resistant.
If adopted, she said the method could help to reduce the UAE's carbon footprint because it does not involve fossil-fuel usage.
Professor William Sampson, a materials scientist at the University of Manchester in the UK who specialises in paper, said he thought it unlikely that non-plant materials would ever replace the plant material cellulose as the key ingredient in paper. Plant materials are, he noted, biodegradable and easily recyclable.
However, he suggested there could be niche applications for paper-like materials made from other sources.
“I am sure there are materials solutions for many problems that [could use] thin film-like materials,” he said.
The idea for sand-polymer paper originated when Ms Ahmed and a group of fellow chemical engineering department students, Sara Alketbi, Sumiyya Rabbani and Hamda Almesmari, were looking for an idea to enter into a competition, “Think Science”.
“We wanted to come up with a really innovative idea that incorporated what the UAE is really working towards – sustainability,” said Ms Ahmed.
The idea resulted in a third place prize in the 2016 edition of Think Science, success that spurred Ms Ahmed to later join forces with Ms Veetil to further develop the method.
She said the support of her supervisor at UAEU, Dr Ali Al Marzouqi, has been important for allowing the project to develop.