A team of United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) students are working on an environmentally-friendly project to utilise the country’s local natural resources and transform sand into paper, through a process designed to tackle water shortages and reduce the country’s carbon footprint.
Sidra Siraj Ahmed, a graduate student from the Al Ain (UAE) university’s Chemical Engineering department and Rukshana Mangattu Veetil, a senior year undergraduate student in UAEU's Chemical Engineering department, are fine-tuning a process to produce a mineral-based strong, and durable paper-like product manufactured by binding sand and polymer pellets that uses significantly less energy to produce than wood fibre paper and requires no water during production.
"The first use of paper dates to the 2nd Century BC,” said Ms Ahmed. "Whether it is used to represent value such as money, or to store information, paper has been a vital necessity globally.
"The consumption of paper worldwide has increased by 400% in the past 40 years, leading to a rise in deforestation and global warming, while water and air pollution are also major drawbacks of the paper industry. Wood has been the basic element in creating paper, but our question is what if an alternative material, which is abundant in nature, could be used instead?"
Ms Ahmed said the UAEU-led project would be a world-first. "There is nowhere else in the world where paper is made from sand,” she explains. "The idea came about because we wanted to enter a competition called 'Think Science'. We wanted to come up with a really innovative idea that incorporated what the UAE is really working towards - sustainability.”
With easy access to the UAE's desert landscape, Ms Ahmed said she and her original teammates - Sumiyya Faheem Rabbani, Hamda Jumah Khalaf Alzari Almesmari and Sara Helal Rubayea Matar Alketbi, also of the Chemical Engineering department - brainstormed to think of a way of harnessing the country’s natural resources into an eco-friendly product needed for daily life.
“We thought to ourselves 'what are the resources available here?,” said Ms Ahmed. "The material which stood out in terms of being readily available everywhere in the UAE was sand, so we thought about what we could do with it - and ultimately about how we could make paper from it.
"Paper made from stone - rockstock - has recently come into existence. This extremely environmentally friendly paper is 80 percent rock, with the remainder being a polymer. We thought that, if paper can be made from rocks, why can it not be made out of sand? And that is how the idea came about.”
After winning third prize in Think Science 2016 in the Applied Chemistry and Biochemistry category with their innovative idea, Ms Ahmed teamed up with Ms Veetil to develop the idea into reality. To date, they have conducted several experiments and taken a number of different approaches, and are now aiming to perfect their innovation.
Currently an approach on pelletizing and rolling is being tried upon. “This is basically making little pellets of the sand and polymor (polymer) mixture and trying to roll out,” explains Ms Ahmed. “We are in this phase right now and while we are still figuring out some challenges we are very hopeful.”
Bleaching the sand to lighten the color of the sheet obtained is also being investigated. The production process is expected to not require water and fossil fuel usage. This will contribute in lowering the carbon footprint which is indeed highly beneficial to the country.
Ms Ahmed, who credits supervisor Ali Al-Marzouqi, from the Chemical Engineering Department, for his overarching support to the project, said once the process is perfected, the end result has the potential to bring multiple benefits. "Paper uses a lot of water,” she explained. "In the UAE, we are facing some water shortages, so this will definitely contribute towards tackling that problem.
"Not only is the paper formed a 'tree-free' product, it is also expected to be high in tear-resistance and durability, while polymer is also water resistant. The aim is to be able to create paper out of a sustainable resource - sand - which not only will save trees and reduce water consumption, but boost the economy of the country since paper could then be created using a local natural resource.
"This will contribute in lowering the country's carbon footprint. The production process is expected to not require water and fossil fuel usage, adding to the list of advantages. Currently, paper is mainly being produced using wood from forest trees that is leading to catastrophic effects on the environment. One of the major environmental problems is deforestation, and this not only affects biodiversity, but also results in increasing rates of global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions from the burning or decomposition of wood during the process of producing paper.
"Paper production requires water consumption at every stage of the manufacturing process, and pollutants from the process have adverse effects on marine ecosystems and air quality. The alternative material we are researching will act as a cutting-edge solution to the extensive use of trees in the paper-making industry, and also contribute to the UAE’s 2021 vision of a more sustainable future."