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Suppose you were an astronaut on a space ship in the near future. Or an on an asteroid mission where little to no gravity is available. In such a situation it would be difficult to justify taking a large supply of blank paper. Perhaps you might have a few blank notebooks in your personal allowance but those will only let you so long.

So, how do you go about producing more paper for yourself? What are good feedstocks? Or how might you modify typical paper making techniques for micro gravity?

I am looking for science-based answers for a near future setting. Exactly how near future is not important.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this Question a lot. Is there farming going on in the vicinity? on the asteroid or in the ship? $\endgroup$ – King-Ink Feb 13 '16 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @BSteinhurst Would pencil and eraser work? $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Feb 13 '16 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @PyRulez alas, not with normal wood pulp paper because it wears out after only a few erasings. The point is to actually make an archival writing surface. $\endgroup$ – BSteinhurst Feb 13 '16 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ The gravity does not really matter since you need a press if you want to make some usable paper $\endgroup$ – Gianluca Feb 15 '16 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ Pencil and eraser are both nasty to have in spacecraft. You don't want bits floating around. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Feb 15 '16 at 16:26
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Maybe you'll have durable sheets that can be washed and reused, rather than disposable. That would be handy for printers too, which can erase the fed sheets as well as print. Note this idea of plastic sheets is used in Marvin Minsky's novel The Turing Option.

You might also combine e-ink sheets with traditional marking, or virtualize the marking like on a screen now. Even if a sheet needs to be placed over a command tablet to work with, people might find "real" paper lacking after being able to select, drag content, etc. like with a painting program but totally intuitive.

As for pulp-based paper making, I think it will adapt easily. If anything, pulp won't settle out so that makes it easy; you might even do without so much water and mix in air! Flattening the pulp against a screen will happen through acceleration of the screen and with moving air.

If they have renewable resources like growing plants, there may be facilities for handling materials and performing tasks that require gravity, like centrifugal chambers of various sizes, and other procedures already figured out for zero g. Maybe your hobbiest will adapt the equipment used for washing potatoes, or separating wheat from chaff, for example. Existing gardening stuff may involve materials handling in ways that can be adapted.

Instead of pulp, suitable sheets might be produced using polymers or other thin films that form on membranes. A coating process in the fab might be adapted to making sheets that aren't attached to another surface but peel off like old fashioned paint without proper primer (as I remember from a kitchen adventure when I was a kid).

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    $\begingroup$ Film deposition was my first thought when I read the question. +1! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Feb 13 '16 at 20:48
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The biggest problem I see here is the water use required for making paper. In space, water is incredibly precious, to the point that all waste fluid is collected and purified to be reused. It seems like a better option would be to use something like a computer tablet that you can get an infinite number of "pages" without having to physically make new paper.

If you still decide you want traditional paper, another problem you are going to have is it containing the pulp before it solidifies in the paper. If you I don't have gravity, you're going to have to watch that the paper doesn't float away and jam up equipment. To deal with this issue, you should look at the plans for how they'll have surgery in space.

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Actually it wouldn't be that bad. Modern production methods means you could have a machine you feed with bleach, water and used paper, and on the other end you get fresh dry sheets and dirty water for purification. Contained pulp making, roller press, roller drying, no problems with making paper.

The things you would have problems with:

  • Purifying water you use to remove paint (pulp water can be in closed loop)
  • Disposing washed away ink
  • Supply of bleach / print paint remover
  • Printer ink / pens / pencils

So when producing paper is certainly possible and pretty easy, it's also not practical for other reasons than production itself.

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My first thought was, "You can always simulate gravity with rotation, so why not use a centrifuge?" In zero gees, it's pretty easy to spin things.

As for "good feedstocks", the most obvious answer is hemp. As EVERYONE knows, it is easy to grow hydroponically, in confined spaces with artificial lighting. People have been talking for decades about replacing trees with hemp in the paper-making industry -- it's the association with marijuana (and the strength of the logging industry) that's prevented that from happening, not any particular technical detail.

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I think that paper will be a luxury item. Most people will see it as an inefficient information storage medium. It will have more mass and volume that digital storage and mass = money if you have to move it. Extra mass needs extra reaction mass (which, itself needs extra reaction mass, etc.).

The mechanical problem of making paper is easily solved since the only part that requires gravity is the separation of the pulp and the water. I see two ways to overcome this. Spin the screen (as has been mentioned elsewhere) or spray at high speed onto a nonstick surface (make a paper "paint" that you peel off.

The real kicker that I see is that you need fibers to produce the paper. For efficiency, I think most hydroponic plants will be selected for their consumable to waste ratio. As such, most plants in space will have no or minimal fibrous parts. So, you would have to plan ahead and select non-optimal plants.

Another source of fiber is animal hair. I think that wool is best but I don't know how efficient sheep will be to raise in space. I've heard that goats are the most likely for small habitats.

This may not be too much of an issue if the clothing is fiber based. In that case, there is already a fiber producing infrastructure and paper can be made out of worn out clothes.

If I remember my James Burke correctly, monks raising sheep led to cheap wool underwear. Plentiful worn out underwear, turned into rags, led to cheap paper which led to the spread of literacy.

The same mechanic could work in space. You just have to figure out the most efficient way of producing the fiber in the first place.

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