Mark-making is one of the things that makes us human. Writing has been with us since the ancient Sumerians first pressed sharpened reeds into clay, and no amount of digitization has managed to wean us off our addiction to printed symbols.
Whether those symbols are found on food labels, instruction manuals, bank statements or cosmetics packaging, they will be part of our lives for a long time yet. And that, for Xerox Research Fellow Guerino Sacripante, means there’s an urgent need to think afresh about how we print and the materials we print with.
30 years of innovation
As a polymer scientist at Xerox’s Research Centre of Canada (XRCC), Guerino has dedicated his 30-year career to finding more efficient ways to print. In that time, he’s become one of Xerox’s most prolific innovators, receiving over 240 patents for his work on new toner compounds and printing processes.
“Most Xerographic machines today use dry toner powder made up of tiny plastic particles,” Guerino explains. “That plastic is derived from fossil fuels that are abundant now, but will start to run out. The particles have to be heated up until they melt, and that consumes energy. Then the melted plastic limits the recyclability of the printed matter. The whole lifecycle puts stress on the environment.”
A personal challenge
When Guerino first set out to work on the challenge of making print more sustainable, he took advantage of a Xerox policy that allows staff in its research centers to spend time on personal projects.
“There are core projects that we have to work on,” he explains. “But we’re also encouraged to use 10 to 20 percent of our time to explore our own ideas. If you can demonstrate your idea has potential, it can become your main core project, and you can then spend 80-90 percent of your time on it. That’s how I got started in sustainability.”
Guerino began by looking at some of the problems inherent in paper recycling. One of the stages of recycling involves removing ink from printed paper, so the de-inked paper can be turned into high-quality pulp. The chemical make-up of the toner has a significant influence on how well it can be removed.
His research led him to identify and patent a new type of binder resin that enables toner to be removed more easily, particularly by smaller pulping mills.
But his focus on sustainability soon moved from paper to ink. There are many ways to reduce the environmental impact of printer ink, from identifying more sustainable sources of polymers, to developing compounds with a lower melt point, to reducing the amount of packaging and waste associated with printing.
The quest for sustainable toner polymers
Guerino’s research has taken him into all of these areas and more, in search of solutions that are both sustainable and commercially viable. “The challenge,’’ he says, “is to get the material, make it, and still offer it at the same price. There are many potential economically-viable alternatives to petrochemical-based polymers, but you have to look at the whole lifecycle.”
Some options that initially looked appealing failed the sustainability test. “It’s possible to make ethanol from corn, and derive polymers from that, but the process is unsustainable because of the energy needed to extract and process them.”
Natural polymers from wood and plants
One very promising solution lies in biomass. Some of Guerino’s most significant patents relate to the use of rosin and lignin as an alternative to petrochemical (plastic) polymers. Both are abundantly naturally occurring polymers, present in wood and plants. They are well suited for printer inks and toners, and, crucially, they have a positive environmental lifecycle, being relatively efficient to extract and process, and biodegradable after use.
Thanks to work done by Guerino and his colleagues, Xerox has been an early and successful adopter of sustainable inks in its products. Xerox solid-ink toners, for example, have 30 percent renewable content and minimal packaging, while the EA-Eco toner has an ultra-low melt point to reduce energy consumption. Its small particle size means 40 percent less toner is used per printed page.
Overcoming the challenge of economics
These are great steps forward, but Guerino says there is a long way to go. One of the biggest barriers to progress is pure economics. “The financial viability of sustainable toners fluctuates with the price of oil,” he says. “When oil is at $150 a barrel, producing bio-derived inks starts to look quite attractive. When the price drops, it’s much more economical to produce toner from petrochemicals. The big challenge is producing a sustainable product to sell at the same price point as traditional toner.”
The alternative is persuading companies to pay more for toner from renewable sources. Guerino points out that there are trade-offs to be had: some biomass-derived toner polymers have a lower melt point than petrochemical polymers, for example, meaning printers and copiers use less energy to heat the ink.
“That’s starting to be a big consideration, especially in countries where electricity is more expensive than it is in the U.S.,” says Guerino. “People are actively looking for low energy-consumption devices, so they may be prepared to pay more for toner if it reduces their energy use.”
Legislation as a catalyst for change
Another catalyst for change could come from government. “Future regulations may mandate that a certain amount of printed material must be from sustainable sources, which will spur uptake of sustainable toners.”
Even without legislation, Guerino sees certain industry sectors moving en masse to bio-renewable inks. “The food industry, certainly, is very interested in alternatives to petrochemical-based toners for printing labels and packaging. The challenge, as always, is to find the right combination of sustainable materials, with a positive lifecycle analysis. But we’re really close right now to getting there.”
The next frontier: sustainable 3D printing
Sustainability remains an issue as printing expands into new dimensions. One of Guerino’s current areas of research is developing safe, sustainable materials for 3D printing, as an alternative to existing thermoplastic printing materials that are either derived from petrochemicals or are proven to release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when heated.
“We’re at the very early stages of developing bio-renewable compositions for 3D printing,” says Guerino. “But I’m confident we’ll be able to create high-quality, lower-cost, ‘green’ printing materials that will help to make 3D printing more accessible to consumers as well as manufacturers.”
A laser focus
Guerino is determined to continue his inquiry into environmental stewardship. “It’s a personal mission for me,” he says. “When I look back at what I’ve done in life, I want to be able to say I’ve done something positive for humanity. If I can actively help us move away from fossil fuels, that will be a tangible contribution that makes things better for everyone.”
“When I look back at what I’ve done in life, I want to be able to say I’ve done something positive for humanity. If I can actively help us move away from fossil fuels, that will be a tangible contribution that makes things better for everyone.”
We’ve all changed the world. Every one of us. With every breath we take, our presence endlessly ripples outwards.
But few of us have the opportunity to change many lives for the better. And even fewer are challenged to do so every day. That’s the gauntlet thrown daily at Xerox research scientists — to try and effect change.
In return, we give them time and space to dream. And then the resources to turn dreams into reality — whether they’re inventing new materials with incredible functions, or using augmented reality to bolster the memory of Alzheimer’s patients.
We’re proud of our Agents of Change in Xerox research centers across the world. Here are some of their stories.