After the initial trauma of the coronavirus lockdown, one can imagine the ease with which civilization might disintegrate in the face of disaster. In a real end of world scenario, we can safely assume that many of the things we take for granted — wireless networks, smartphones, the Internet and other forms of instant communication — will be lost.
For the survivors, then, they will have no choice but to fall back on the more traditional forms of communication — such as the simple pen and paper. But paper is an extremely perishable material. A combination of time, wildfires, humidity and other factors will quickly deplete whatever stocks of paper are left behind.
Civilizations are built on the accumulated knowledge of writers. To avoid a regression, it will be necessary for the survivors of the hypothetical collapse to return the real fruits of the Earth. They will need to learn how to recreate paper from scratch.
Paper from the raw Earth
Chinese civilization was the first to develop paper, perhaps more than a thousand years before it appeared in Europe. But the ancient Chinese did not use the same type of paper that is widely used in society today. In fact, modern smooth and white paper is actually a very recent invention, dating only back to the late nineteenth century.
Before then, paper was mostly made out of tattered and recycled linen fragments. Linen itself is a type of fabric made from the fibres of flax plants. But in principle, paper can be constructed out of any plant that is fibrous in nature. Including from hemp, some types of coarse grass, even nettles.
Modern paper is uniquely light and strong, however, because it is made from fibres that consist mainly of cellulose. This chemical is actually present in all plants. The problem is, it is very difficult and labour intensive to remove cellulose from other plant chemicals. Traditionally, a process known as ‘retting’ would be required. Whereby plant stems are crushed and left to soak in stagnant water for a few weeks. During which the structure is broken down and decomposed by microorganisms. But even after the stalks are softened, the cellulose usually has to be ‘beaten’ out of them by force.
Modern paper — made from tree trunks — is made from a type of cellulose that is intertwined with a very strong chemical called lignin. Fortunately, there is a way to separate the two with minimal effort — by implementing a chemical process known as hydrolysis.
Reinventing modern paper
Hydrolysis is a molecular operation that is used for a variety of reasons across the industrialised world, and making modern paper is no exception. It involves chopping up wood into small pieces and placing it into a vat of boiling alkaline solution for a few hours. The corrosive alkali will soon begin to break down the chemical bonds …