The Future of the Paper Towel, and Related Nano-Thoughts


I guess I just worry too much, but, lately, every time I take a paper towel from the dispenser at work or toss a bit of plastic wrap in the trash, I can’t help but have thoughts like “Here goes another cup of oil.”,  “How can we handle 6+ billion people all doing this, every day?”, and “Where will the energy and material come from to permit this in the future?”.  Then, in lieu of feeling depressed and more worried, I have to spur myself to think creatively about it, and sometimes I run to the computer to write another entry in this blog.  So … how ARE we going to handle 6 billion people who all want to have paper towels, electric lights, houses, cars and other modern conveniences when they actually get them?

Obviously, my first assumption is: We won’t be doing what we’re doing now.  We won’t be pulling paper towels from dispensers, or, if we are, they will be cheaply recyclable into new, clean paper towels or other needed items.  Who knows, perhaps we will merely flip buttons on a pocket device the size of a cellphone and a cloud or crowd of nano- or micro-bots will quickly move to where we would need a paper towel, where they would absorb or break down the spilled material or dirt and cart it quickly away as tiny particles to a hopper in the wall, from which it will later be collected for recycling, or composting, or some other even more sustainable process.

Perhaps even hand or dish washing would be like that.  You hold your hand, or the object you want to wash, over a sink, push a button, and a nearly-invisible cloud of microbots fall or fly to the object to be cleaned, where they quickly cover it, and break down and remove dirt and microorganisms, after which they fall into the sink carrying the broken down stuff, and leaving your hands or the dish clean, disinfected, and dry.

As some science fiction writers have written in the past, and since microbiology has already been proven by nature to be extremely viable and effective, the microbots in question might live on us symbiotically, working for us around the clock.  Our own cells and the many microorganisms that live on and in us do this now, it’s just that we don’t completely understand them, let alone have much ability to control them except through electrochemical “bludgeoning”, and mass extermination when they get out of order.

So, that addresses possibilities for the paper towel problem.  There are plenty of others, however.  People do need personal contact, and transportation is a necessity to accomplish that.  Does that mean that a billion nanobots would suddenly lift your shoes (or backside) a few microns off the floor, and suddenly you would be zooming along, seemingly without friction, across the land?  Or does it just mean that, with the aid of nanobots and specialized cells maintaining your body, you would get up and easily walk to the nearest transportation device, again possibly a biological entity with all the benefits of modern bio-nano-microtechnology … a bionic pony?

And, when the weather is uncomfortably cold or hot, would the bio-microbots form an insulating covering over the appropriate areas of your skin, effectively providing a completely dynamic and adaptable form of clothing?  If you were mountain climbing, and you fell, would your personal horde of microbots spin out webs a la spiderman, grabbing at the rocks until they slowed your fall to a safe velocity, bond your skin to the rocks to keep you in place, and then selectively grab and release the rocks as if your skin was equipped with a highly controllable superglue-like substance, while other nanobots released extra glycogen into your muscles to enable you to climb back to where you wanted to be?  Of course, if you sustained any injury in the fall, nanobots could fix the damage at the cellular level, though you might have to take calcium supplements they could use to rebuild damaged bone and eat appropriate foods to enable the healing process.

In any case, the basic theoretical thinking that could lead to such technological advances seems to only now be starting to gel, and, even at the current rapid pace of scientific advancement I estimate it will be one to two centuries before anything like the concepts I describe above might be possible, not the two to five decades in which we need major advancement to cope with the exploding human population and all the ramifications thereof.  The way to get there faster certainly leads through basic research, and it is possible that, if the electorate understood the benefits and established the legislative priorities, our rate of scientific and technological progress could be accelerated.  How this level of public understanding might be achieved is a topic for much discussion and conceptual development all by itself, and I won’t try to enter into that here, but the priority of doing so seems obvious.

In the meantime, the dream stands, the future is out there to be shaped as we are able, and the rewards and consequences are significant, if speculative at this point.

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2 responses to “The Future of the Paper Towel, and Related Nano-Thoughts

  1. Paper towels will be gone soon people will need to use rags and just wash them weekly.

    • Thanks, Sham wow, but I don’t know that paper towels will be gone soon. Some people (myself included) are already moving to cloth napkins and kitchen rags, for example, which can be tossed into the wash as needed. I still use paper towels for a few messes such as cat accidents and disinfecting kitchen counters after preparing raw chicken, for example, but a roll of paper towels now lasts for months in my kitchen. It’s a move in the right direction, I think, but we need a lot more information, much of it requiring in-depth study of the things we use, to make intelligent decisions about it. If more universities pushed such research as the subject of graduate degrees, for example, or promoted faculty research in the direction of sustainability, we would be better off, in my opinion.
      Thanks again for your comment. – Tim

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