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banner Monday, 29 January, 2001, 11:47 GMT
Paper waits to take over

In the world of IT and telecommunications, plastic may have soon had its day. Are you ready for the paper PC and cardboard mobile phone?

Buried under a blizzard of faxes, print-outs and Post-it notes? Longing for the arrival of the paperless office? Well, paper may not be quite the enemy you think.

Neville Chamberlain
"I have in my hand a Playstation 3"
Paper could soon replace plastic as the material of choice for computers and phones.

Some of paper technology's more enthusiastic advocates claim the 10 paper laptop is just five years away.

Single-use paper computers could be even closer. Dumb order forms, requiring you to fill them in with block capitals, will be replaced by smart printed computers, which will store the data you enter electronically.

Paper view

Absentee ballots, registration forms and catalogue orders could all be completed on such devices - your data being mailed back to be downloaded or transmitted as a radio signal.

So when every magazine we pick up is packed with wafer-thin computers and our door mat is invisible under piles of hi-tech junkmail, what will we have to thank? Offset lithography - a printing process discovered in 1904.

Researchers at Brunel University have spent the past five years looking at how to produce electronic components using the techniques.

Examining ballot papers in Florida
For Bush press 1, For Gore press 2, For pizza press 3
Dr David Harrison, the research team leader, says the aim was to come up with a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to produce electronics.

"It uses the same techniques that are used to produce magazine covers to make electronic circuits - at the same rate and the same sort of cost."

Another benefit is that fewer non-renewable materials, such as silver, are used. Paper or cellulose replaces polyester.

"If the materials break down and biodegrade, and the production process is speeded up so that you use less energy, then we've achieved those aims," he says.

Awaiting the "pap" top

Dr Harrison agrees that it will soon be possible to produce paper computers - if there is a demand for the product.

"If people want to have bits of paper that process information, then I'm sure that will come to pass."

Man collecting cardboard
"I hate taking work home"
With the process about 10 times faster than the silk-screening printing process used to produce thick film electronics, we could well find ourselves being snowed under by smart paper.

Which is to say nothing of the the ultimate in disposable electronics, which will soon be with us. Toy designer Randice-Lisa Altschul has come up with the "throw away as you go" mobile phone.

Due for launch in 2002, the Card-Phone-Card is largely made from recycled paper.

Joining the fold

Ms Altschul - the women who brought the world "interactive cereal" - has done away with the rigid plastic casing of standard mobiles.

Instead the phone's usually-hidden circuitry has been stretched out to form a flexible "ribbon", folded so as to create the body of the device.

The Card-Phone-Card
Paper phones: call and bin
Avid text messagers may be disappointed to find the paper phone has no LCD display. Nor does it have a built-in mic or speaker, coming instead with a hands-free kit. It's also only good for outgoing calls.

The good news is that Ms Altschul estimates her no frills phone, plus a hour of talk time, will cost $20 (13).

Perfect for those who are forever losing their mobile, or those - like Ms Altschul - who are tempted to trash their phones whenever the signal fails.

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