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Next up on your to-buy list, someday: A laser unprinter

Cambridge researchers say they've successfully used lasers to remove toner from printed sheets without ruining the underlying paper.

Jonathan Joseph Bondhus/Jeff Keyzer/Wikimedia Commons

What if instead of recycling old printouts, you could simply "unprint" them and re-use the paper?

Researchers at the University of Cambridge say it's possible--and that ultimately, widespread adoption of the practice could not only save trees but significantly reduce climate-change emissions from paper manufacturing and recycling as well.

The university reported yesterday that Julian Allwood, leader of the Low Carbon Materials Processing Group at Cambridge, and doctoral student David Leal-Ayala had successfully used lasers to remove toner from paper without significantly damaging the paper.

With help from the Bavarian Laser Center, Allwood and Leal-Ayala tested 10 different laser setups--spanning the ultraviolet, visible, and infrared spectrum, and featuring different strengths and pulse durations--on standard Canon copy paper with HP Laserjet black toner.

The researchers then examined the test sheets using a scanning electron microscope and subjected them to color, mechanical, and chemical analyses.

The university speculates that advances in laser, copier, and printer technology could one day make toner-removing devices widespread in office settings. "What we need to do now is find someone to build a prototype," the university quotes Allwood as saying.

And reusing paper in this way could at least halve emissions from the pulp and paper recycling industry, the university claims, with emissions from paper incineration and decomposition in landfill being affected as well.

A commenter on the Cambridge site also wonders if the process could replace shredding as a security measure.