Paper, ink, electricity | Day 36

These days we take touchscreens pretty much for granted. Toddlers are incredibly adept at using tablet computers, and even I occasionally catch myself trying to swipe or tap on screens that are not actually swipe- or tappable. You know, just in case that’s how it works.

Today I acquired my first e-reader and, even though I’m constantly exposed to some of the most impressive modern portable technology in the shape of my smartphone, I’m even more impressed with the magic that is electronic paper.

My e-reader employs a technology known as an electrophoretic ink. The screen contains millions of tiny microcapsules about as large as the width of a human hair. These capsules are filled with a clear fluid, and two types of particles — positively charged white ones and negatively charged black ones.

The microcapsules are sandwiched between two layers of electrode arrays that, upon applying an electric charge to the microcapsules, shift the particles around so that you get either white ones, black ones, or a mixture of both on the top of the capsule. Because you’re looking at the capsules from above, only the top layer of the particles is visible. Hence the white parts become the ‘paper,’ and the black parts are the ‘ink.’

Image belongs to Eink corporation.
Image belongs to Eink corporation.

Perhaps the most elegant aspect of e-ink is the fact that once a shift in the pattern has been made, no additional electricity is needed to keep the particles in their place. Hence e-reader battery life is notoriously longer than that of digital displays. Right now mine is displaying a gorgeous, high-contrast black and white image of some old-school typesetting letters, and I know that it’s using absolutely no battery to do so. Much nicer than the black screen of my battery-greedy phone.


This is day 36 of my 365 day writing project. If you want to come along for the ride, you should subscribe to the weekly newsletter!

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