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Tech Breakthrough Could Mean Disposable E-Readers

electrowetting

Researchers demonstrate that paper can be used as a flexible host material for a new type of color display, called an "electrowetting" device.University of Cincinnati Nanoelectronics Laboratory

No need to wish for access to the library at Hogwarts; you may soon own a book that can refill its pages -- just like magic.

Imaginations are running wild upon news of a breakthrough that could lead to a low-cost and even disposable e-reader. Coining the phrase "E-paper on paper," electrical engineering professor Andrew Steckl and University of Cincinnati doctoral student Duk Young Kim have developed a method that allows colored text and video to be displayed on flexible, organic paper. 

Not too unlike pixels on a screen, "electrowetting" involves applying voltage to millions of colored droplets within a display to form the images seen on the paper, Steckl told FoxNews.com.

"We've been working with electrowetting devices for making displays for some time, and I thought it would be great if the kind of devices we build used more natural materials," Steckl said. "You know, renewable materials that we can harvest on a regular basis and then dispose of more naturally as well."

Currently, the Amazon Kindle uses an electrophoretic screen developed by E-Ink to mimic text on a page; in that type of display, charged pigment particles are rearranged by an electric field. The Kindle has only a black-and-white screen at present, but E-Ink just released E-Ink Triton, its latest color e-reader, in early November. And Mirasol, a spin-off of semiconductor giant Qualcomm, has yet another technology for making color screens, which it too is confident can revolutionize e-readers.

But Steckl argues that electrowetting is up to 10 times faster than electrophoresis and will provide video capabilities that E-Ink and other electronic paper companies have yet to achieve. He also asserts that e-readers' hard screens make them too expensive and too fragile. 

With his discovery, Steckl hopes to return, in a way, to the newspaper or magazine era, with e-readers being readily available to as many people as possible.

"If we really want to make e-readers ubiquitous, you have to bring down the cost and you have to improve the look and feel of it," Dr. Steckl told FoxNews.com. "We're used to paper, and it works great. It has perfect reflectivity and contrast. So that's what germinated in my mind for a while. I thought, 'Why don't we try to do this on paper as a substrate?' It just made sense."

Neither E-Ink nor Amazon responded to requests for a comment about the discovery to FoxNews.com, but they do have some time before the competition heats up. Steckl estimates that it will take three to five years before a commercial prototype can be crafted employing his flexible e-paper. But he's excited to see what will eventually developed.

"Maybe it'll be like sheets of e-paper sold in dispensing machines or it might be like a binder or spiral with pages that are accessed electronically. Or even a book that can be refilled," said Steckl. "There are many options to explore."

No matter what comes of his discovery, Steckl is certain e-readers are necessary for our changing lifestyle and technological advances, citing Amazon's recent announcement of selling more electronic books than hardcovers this past July.

"In general, the future of electronic paper is not in doubt anymore," said Steckl. "It's here to stay."