April 20, 2012 at 1:37 PM ET
Paper lunch sacks that never get greasy, newspapers that stay dry when tossed on rain-soaked doorsteps and antibacterial paper towels are just some of the uses envisioned for a new waterproof paper made with a nanotech process that can also impart gee-whiz properties such as magnetism.
To make the paper, the research team from the Italian Institute of Technology treats a normal sheet with a solution that contains a monomer.
This monomer forms “a polymeric shell around each individual fiber of paper and this gives the treated paper a waterproof property,” Despina Fragouli, team leader for the smart materials platform at the institute, explained to me in an email on Friday.
If the monomer is mixed with other particles it takes on those properties as well – think magnetic particles or silver nanoparticles (for antibacterial purposes), for example.
“In this way, the treated paper is waterproof and with a specific functionality that depends on the type of particles that we used,” she said.
That means you could have a paper that’s waterproof and magnetic, for example, or waterproof and antibacterial, or one that’s self-cleaning.
What’s cool is that even though the paper has taken on these additional properties, in most instances it continues to feel and function like regular old paper – write on it, for example, or wrap a sandwich in it and pack it off with the kids for school.
In some instances, such as treatment with fluorescent or magnetic particles, the color changes a bit, noted Fragouli, but it’s otherwise just like the paper on your desk.
“On the other hand, when the paper is treated in order to become self-cleaning, so the water drops are sliding immediately when they touch the surface, it is not possible to have a good quality printing,” she said.
In addition to uses such as waterproof books and newspapers and antibacterial paper towels, such a paper could be used to protect important documents from humidity, checking the authenticity of banknotes and contracts.
The futuristic paper is described in a study published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.