Xerox saves toner and energy with nanotechnology

Researchers at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) received the 2005 Best Emerging Technology Award from CATAAlliance for their environmentally-friendly toner technology, called Emulsion Aggregation (EA).

EA, the company says, has several advantages over standard toner technologies – it is more efficient, uses less energy, and offers significant cost savings.

Conventional toner production is an extremely inefficient process, according to Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and centre manager at XRCC in Mississauga, Ont. “It is a top-down process. You take a large quantity of raw material – plastics, polymers and colorants – and grind it down to micron (one millionth of a meter) size. This grinding, he says, is done at high speed against metal to break down the materials.”

He says productivity is low, and the process consumes a great deal of energy.

“You can’t control the shape and size of broken particles, so you get [a portion] that is larger or smaller than you want. These particles have to removed and reprocessed.”

By contrast, he says, Xerox’s patented EA chemical process uses nanotechnology to build up particles to the right size in an inert medium (water) instead of breaking down larger materials.

“We start with molecules, which are the basis of all materials, and build them up to nanometer size (one billionth of a meter) for ingredients, and then combine them to make micron size materials. Since you are building up, you can produce particles that are all the same shape and size, and stopping the process at the right size is easy,” says Mahabadi.

According to Mahabadi, EA uses about 25 per cent less energy than conventional toner manufacturing processes, since no energy-intensive grinding is needed.

The new process, he says, has advantages for end users as well.

Due to the smaller size of the toner particles, paper can be covered with a much thinner layer, so 50 per cent less toner is needed to produce the same quantity of prints at the consumer end, he says.

“To produce 10,000 prints, you may need, say 50 grams of toner instead of 100.” He says the fuel savings are even more significant when you consider the toner itself was manufactured using 25 per cent less energy.

Mahabadi says Xerox has been enhancing the speed of its EA-based printers, which have been on the market since 2002, and is moving gradually to make all its products EA-based in the future. “Xerox operates five global research centres based on competency, and our mandate in Canada is materials research, which is unique compared with other research centres. Our Mississauga site manufactures all our EA toner, and we supply the world from here.”

By moving to EA, he says, Xerox is trying to reduce toner consumption and waste.

Each year, millions of empty toner and inkjet cartridges used in laser printers, fax machines and copiers are thrown away, destined for landfills and incinerators. E-waste is an issue of growing concern as more and more obsolete high-tech gadgets and consumables are thrown away.

Environmentalists are challenging businesses to design more efficient, sustainable manufacturing processes by considering energy requirements and waste generated through the entire life cycle of a product – from the raw materials used as inputs to end-of-life waste management.

At least one environmentalist praises Xerox’s efforts in this regard.

“What Xerox is doing at the production phase of the overall life cycle for toner is commendable. They have a model that provides customers with printed pages more efficiently than conventional processes,” says Lloyd Hicks, director of solid waste prevention at Inform Inc., a New York-based environmental research group.

But Hicks sounds a cautionary note about nanotechnology. “Technology that operates at the nano scale, whatever it creates, produces particles that can penetrate human cells. Not much environmental research has been done in this area, but I think it’s going to become important, especially for end of life waste management,” he says.

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