Is Flat the Next Big Thing?

The Human Media Lab at Queen’s University, Canada and Arizona State University’s Motivational Environments Research group have teamed up to create what’s been dubbed the “PaperPhone.”  The phone was created with the same e-ink technology found in the Kindle e-book reader and in flexible printed circuits featuring an array of bend sensors.

E-history: the world is flat, but bendy. The first electronic paper, developed in the 1970s in Palo Alto, was called Gyricon and consisted of polyethylene spheres between 75 and 106 micrometers across. In the 1990s another type of electronic paper was invented by Joseph Jacobson, who later co-founded the E Ink Corporation.

In an electrophoretic display, particles with a diameter of one micrometer are dispersed in a hydrocarbon oil with a dark-colored dye with surfactants and charging agents. This mixture is placed between two parallel, conductive plates. With applied voltage, the particles will migrate electrophoretically to the plate bearing its opposite charge.  Arranging this movement into patterns — in this case pixels — is the basis for a paper thin display.

Although called the “PaperPhone”, the name doesn’t quite do the prototype justice. “SmartPaperPhone” may be more fitting. The device can perform several tasks, depending on what shape you form it into.  Want to make a phone call? Bend the paper into a concave shape. Have a favorite e-book? Bend the page corner to turn to the next page. You’ll even have an mp3 player that’s much thinner than your current iPod.

E-regulatory compliance. As far as regulating something like this is concerned “the electronic components and lithium batteries are not regulated as hazardous waste. The entire electronics assembly is RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) compliant and marked as such on the printed circuit board in the cover. All of it can be recycled through your local municipal waste program in the same manner as you dispose of household batteries. (Check local regulations for any further restrictions.) The paper can go in your paper recycling, and the protective foam in your plastic recycling.”

E-exciting or e-issues? While exciting, there are some issues with the PaperPhone. Batteries are still fairly clunky and won’t easily bend. The memory has to be kept somewhere as well. What good is a flexible electronic paper phone if most of is has to stay stationary to accommodate the required working innards?

It could be that buying a ream of cellphones at your local big-box retailer may not be that far off.

Learn more about the technology below:

Adam Baer (guest-blogger for Kal Kawar) manages materials regulation data and reports at Actio Corp.  He holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Maine.

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About Kal

Kal Kawar, CIH, PE, has a bachelor's in chemical engineering and a master's in industrial hygiene. His professional experience includes serving as staff industrial hygienist for IBM's New York semiconductor manufacturing facility, and as industrial hygienist for IBM’s US headquarters. Now executive vice president of Actio, Kal taps more than 20 years' worth of chemical engineering, industrial hygiene, and environmental engineering experience. His far-reaching expertise with global regulatory challenges created by EPA, TSCA, REACH, RoHS, WEEE – and hundreds of others – aid in developing Actio software solutions for MSDS management, raw material disclosure compliance, and product stewardship in a supply chain.