How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1520

What happens when sheets of paper, long rolled up into a tube, are unrolled but simply won't ever lie flat again? — PD
Paper consists mostly of cellulose, a natural polymer (i.e. plastic) built by stringing together thousands of individual sugar molecules into vast chains. Like the sugars from which it's constructed, cellulose's molecular pieces cling tightly to one another at room temperature and make it rather stiff and brittle. Moreover, cellulose's chains are so entangled with one another that it couldn't pull apart even if its molecular pieces didn't cling so tightly. These effects are why it's so hard to reshape cellulose and why wood or paper don't melt; they burn or decompose instead. In contrast, chicle — the polymer in chewing gum — can be reshaped easily at room temperature.

Even though pure cellulose can't be reshaped by melting, it can be softened with water and/or heat. Like ordinary sugar, cellulose is attracted to water and water molecules easily enter its chains. This water lubricates the chains so that the cellulose becomes somewhat pliable and heat increases that pliability. When you iron a damped cotton or linen shirt, both of which consist of cellulose fibers, you're taking advantage of that enhanced pliability to reshape the fabric.

But even when dry, fibrous materials such as paper, cotton, or linen have some pliability because thin fibers of even brittle materials can bend significantly without breaking. If you bend paper gently, its fibers will bend elastically and when you let the paper relax, it will return to its original shape.

However, if you bend the paper and keep it bent for a long time, the cellulose chains within the fibers will begin to move relative to one another and the fibers themselves will begin to move relative to other fibers. Although both of these motions can be facilitated by moisture and heat, time along can get the job done at room temperature. Over months or years in a tightly rolled shape, a sheet of paper will rearrange its cellulose fibers until it adopts the rolled shape as its own. When you then remove the paper from its constraints, it won't spontaneously flatten out. You'll have to reshape it again with time, moisture, and/or heat. If you press it in a heavy book for another long period, it'll adopt a flat shape again.


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