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Cellulose to Paper, Plants to Everything

The Sunday New York Times did a fascinating story yesterday about Timothy Barrett, a man they call the Cellulose Hero and the work he has done with paper, and preserving important of historic paper documents. I read all this with pleasure in the paper edition of the New York Times.

In addition to talking about Barrett’s important work, there was a brief history of paper, invented by the Chinese more than about 2000 years ago. Before that those lucky enough to be literate had to read and write on stone, wood blocks, battered papyrus, clay tablets, and wax tablets.

When we were living in China we became very familiar with rice paper, but I don’t know if that is the first plant the Chinese turned into paper. Paper can be created by soaking, mashing and transforming any number of plants into paper.

The story made me think of all the unnoticed ways plants appear in our life every day. We wear cotton and linen but don’t spend much time thinking about the plants our clothing comes from. The news talks about the problems of low quality coal and the necessity for ‘clean’ coal, but do any of us think about the plants that rotted and were turned into coal by heat and pressure – and time?

Herbal remedies have been around for centuries, but plants play an important part in medicine even today. We have a botanist friend who went on a plant hunting expedition searching for varieties of yew that would be a good source of taxol, a compound that is being used to treat cancer.

Who thinks about turpentine coming from pine trees when they are cleaning their paint brushes?

Who thinks about tropical trees when they buy a spool of jute twine, or a length of jute rope, or a jute rug?

Of course, I live in a wooden house heated with wood. I have wooden furniture made from a variety of trees. But even those of us who live in a New York City steel canyon cannot escape the vital presence of plants in our life every day.

3 comments to Cellulose to Paper, Plants to Everything

  • Indeed the Times article, describing the near miracle of cellulose fibers when properly processed, was fascinating. In architecture, as a structures lab experiment, we had to use a single 8.5×11-inch piece of paper to support a load 10 Kg. (about 22 pounds) at the height of 3 meters. Since cellulose plant fiber has, when processed into paper, incredible tensile strength, all one had to do was make a loop and suspend the weight: the paper carried it perfectly.

    And it makes you wonder why paper dresses didn’t fly off the racks back in the 1960s but that’s a fashion question not a scientific one, I suppose.

  • Pat,
    Many years ago, I decided that I was going to wear only clothes made out of natural fibers (this was when we still thought about renewable vs. non-renewable resources, and I was a student thinking about such things).

    I’d missed this article (I’m afraid I read the Times online, but with a subscription!) I added Tencel (a cellulose-based fiber) to my wardrobe (such as it is) when it was briefly popular.

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  • Pat

    Flaneur – Your paper experiment sounds even more magical than having young grandsons try to break an egg that has been put – end to end – between their two palms.
    Lisa – I also checked rayon, a fabric I love – after reading the article and found that rayon is not quite natural and not quite synthetic. I thought it was cellulose – but it isn’t – quite.

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