Paper can be created out of sand in UAE

A team of students from the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) in Al Ain are working on a world-first project that would create paper out of sand.

Sidra Siraj Ahmed, Rukshana Mangattu Veetil, Sumiyya Faheem Rabbani, Hamda Jumah Khalaf Alzari Almesmari and Sara Helal Rubayea Matar Alketbi - all from UAEU's chemical engineering department - are fine-tuning a process to produce a mineral-based and durable paper-like product.

The process is done by binding sand and polymer pellets that uses significantly less energy to produce than wood-fibre paper and requires no water during production, according to the researchers.

The group came up with their idea after winning third prize in Think Science 2016 in the Applied Chemistry and Biochemistry category. With easy access to the UAE's desert landscape, Ahmed and her teammates thought of a way of harnessing the country's natural resources into an eco-friendly product.

"We asked ourselves 'what are the resources available here'? And, of course, the material which stood out in terms of being readily available was sand. So we brainstormed how we could make paper out of it," Ahmed said.

Ahmed noted that paper made from stone - rockstock - has recently come into existence. Unlike synthetic paper, rockstock is extremely environmentally friendly paper which is 80 per cent 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," she added.

The team they are currently testing pelletising and rolling the sand material. "This is basically making little pellets of the sand and polymer mixture and trying to roll out," said 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 colour of the sheet obtained is also being tested. The production process is expected to not require water and fossil fuel usage, which means lower carbon footprint, according to the team.

"Paper uses a lot of water and in the UAE, we are facing some water shortages, so this will definitely contribute towards tackling that problem. Our is to be able to create paper out of a sustainable resource - sand - which not only will save trees and reduce water consumption," she said.

The team credits their supervisor, Ali Al Marzouqi, for his overarching support to the project. They said once the process is perfected, the end result has the potential to bring multiple benefits.

"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. Currently, paper is mainly being produced using wood from forest trees that is leading to catastrophic effects on the environment. 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," the team said.