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Examining the Structure of Paper under a Microscope

Paper has been a common thing in our lives. We have been using this as far as we can remember but we seldom think about what it really is made of. Our microscope activity and lesson will then be about getting an in-depth observation of papers using a high power compound light microscope. Children can also use their kid microscope or toy microscope kit for this activity although they would not be able to see as clearly as those using a better quality student grade compound microscope.

Let us first refresh our memories on the modern process of making paper. While ancient history used cotton and flax, the present times use pulps of wood and hemp and rags of cotton and linen in the process of making paper. Stocks of these raw materials are treated with strong chemicals that will eventually separate the cellulose in its purest form. Once the cellulose is separated, it will then be boiled with a strong alkali and afterwards be washed in a tank. The material is then bleached and undergoes more processes until it becomes a pulp that is prepared enough for the machines. These paper machines spread the pulp into thin sheets and passes through rollers that presses out excess water and compact the paper’s texture. The product is then good for cutting and distribution.

Papers come from different sources that each provides the paper a characteristic quality. Linen rags give the whitest and finest paper while unused linen and hemp are usually the strongest among the kind.

It will be very interesting to know the composition of the different kinds of paper under a high power compound light microscope. However, since the paper has undergone such extreme processes, what we will see are only fragments. But these fragments are still large enough to be recognized.

What we need to do to perform this microscope experiment is to first tear the paper into small bits. These bits should be boiled in a one percent solution of caustic soda. Afterwards, wash the wet pulp in a fine sieve and shake it in water so that the pulp will break up. Take a small piece, place it on the microscope slide, put on a cover slip, and examine it under the low power objective of a compound light microscope. Gradually increase the power of magnification by rotating the turret to higher power objectives, while rotating the fine focus to keep the specimen clearly in focus. The depth of field decreases as the magnification increases, so it is necessary to more finely adjust the focusing for the higher power objectives.

If the student examines a paper made of linen rag under a high power compound microscope, for example, we will see some flax fibers. Flax fibers, under a high power microscope have very thick walls with oblique lines crossing one another. These paper fibers, however, may look torn and battered but they are still recognizable. If we also examine a paper made of cotton rag, it will have characteristics of cotton fibers. Cotton fibers look like twisted ribbons with thick edges under a high power microscope. Wood pulp, on the other hand, has no characteristic features like that of a fiber structure.

Paper is made up of many different materials such as trees and various fibers. It will be an interesting classroom lesson in microscope activity for students to find out what their notebook’s or book’s paper is made from with this exciting microscope experiment.

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