How chem-free is chem-free? - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Chemistry has become evil. Today we moan chemical’s presence in about everything. Hence, we hear the term chem-free at our industry forums.

In this Sunday Column, PrintWeek discusses what the three major chem-free manufacturers of plate define it as

15 Dec 2019 | By Noel D'Cunha

Bhalchandra Nikumb of Kodak, Melville Noronha of TechNova Imaging Systems and Ramprasad SM of Fujifilm

As a student of chemistry, Ramu Ramanathan was always taught chemistry and what it represents in a simple and quirky manner. What makes the firelight, how oxygen acts as a catalyst, what element is even more combustible that lights the carrier itself. He says, "My chemistry teacher's favourite curse word was: dysprosium." Why so?, I ask him. He replies, "Well, dysprosium is the only element you could remove from human history without changing anything. Saying so, our chemistry teacher would expel the dysprosiums from the chemistry class."

Ramanathan has a problem with the anti chemistry diatribe in public forums from government ministers to industry PR.

As Tim James says in his eminently readable Elemental, "A writer on a popular health website was moaning about 'chemicals in our food' and what we can do to keep food 'chemical-free'. These scaremongers seem to think that chemicals are toxins created by lunatics in lab coats, but this view of far too narrow. Chemicals aren't just the bubbling liquids you see in test tubes: they are the test tubes themselves."

And yet, all of us have been hearing this term chem-free at our industry forums. The views expressed are a health and safety nightmare: a printer poking their nose into chemical drums, dipping their hands into vats of non-hazardous ink, and peering into industrial sinks once toxic chemicals are poured away.

And so, many printers have started sourcing paper responsibly and investing in the latest low-power press. Also thanks to a recent raft of green consumables releases, a matter also of using eco versions of inks, plates, wash-up systems and many other pressroom products. Due to this many printers have declared themselves green, sustainable and chemistry-free.

But one thing we have learnt is, there is no such thing as "chemical-free".  Our clothes; the sun and its rays; the water we drink; the air we inhale; the words on a page or even on a screen where you reading this is, all of it is chemical elements.  If you don't want chemical in your food or in your printing process, it's just not possible. The food we consume, (including organic food) is chemicals. Likewise the plates, the paper, the inks, the consumables and every single atom in your plant.

Ramu Ramanathan says, "If you hear someone say they abhor chemicals, please inform them, that they are a chemical, too."

Which is why PrintWeek asked three major chem-free manufacturers what their definition is. All three said, that from inks, to plates, to wash-up systems and pressroom chemistry, sourcing sustainably makes environmental - and business - sense Their response.

Fujifilm India

Executive vice president Fujifilm Ramprasad SM says, the term chem-free by large from the perspective of pre-press products means "processing chemical-free."

He adds, "The processing chemicals are among the toughest chemicals which are very difficult to manage in the factory step up and require a lot of costs to manage the effluent and still can have its impact on the environment.

Which is why Fujifilm classifies the products in terms of environment-friendliness into two segments: Low chem plates. This, Ramprasad points out is free from all developing chemicals and the only finishing solution is required. Then there is processless plate. These plates completely eliminate the requirement of processor or processing chemicals both for development or for finishing for plates.

Many experts expected the tipping point to be reached shortly with adoption rates of processless technology projected to continue to rise rapidly as the quality and robustness of processless plates increased and the cost decreased.

It’s fair to say that when processless plate technology was initially introduced in the early 2000s the reception was lukewarm. Many people felt the quality wasn’t up to scratch and the plates were not suitable for long run lengths. As a result take-up of processless, chemistry-free and low-chemistry plates was sluggish. But over the past decade or so adoption rates have accelerated as attitudes towards processless technology has changed radically.

Ramprasad says, With a processed plate you had to purchase the chemicals for starters then you had a bath with a lot of chemicals in it that needed to be removed, so the cost of waste was a big factor. Plus there is the space factor. Therefore many customers today consider switching to Fujifilm Superia ZP /ZD  processless plates. As the name suggests, this is essentially platemaking technology that does not require a chemical developer with the benefits of reducing both the amount of chemicals used and also the volume of hazardous waste produced.

Kodak India

Bhalchandra Nikumb, managing director Kodak India and West Asia says, Kodak claims that we have two categories of plates, process and process-free plates (branded as Sonora).

In case of process plates, Nikumb says, Kodak has steps of imaging plates on CTP as well as developing on a processor by using chemistry, before mounting the plate on the press. Whereas in case of process-free plates, Nikumb says, we eliminate one step. "This means after imaging on CTP, the plates directly go on press."

He carries on, "In process-free plates, we eliminate one step of the production process which is plate processing, which involves chemistry. With this elimination, we eliminate the use and effects of chemistry used in the process." According to Nikumb, this elimination of chemistry in the process leads to environment-friendly and green technological evolution for prepress.

For Kodak, the adoption of process-free has continued to rise globally. This migration is led by America and Europe. According to estimates from Kodak in 2017, process-free plates amounted to 19% of total plates volume. The same jumped to 24% in 2018. In 2019, the company estimates that globally that figure should be at around 30%.

Nikumb says, "In India also the adoption of process-free is growing and our volumes have grown by more than 50% year-on-year in India, even in these challenging economic situations. Our Sonora customers have reaped the benefits of first-generation dots and superior print quality.

He says, more and more printers are adopting green technologies. With Sonora, the printer saves expenditure on investment of processor, floor space, chemistry, water, electricity, UPS, recurring maintenance, chemistry disposal and can thus maintain user-friendly, cleaner work environment.

Nikumb says, "We call Kodak Sonora are truly 'process-free' plates because it 100% eliminates the usage of processor & chemistry. In India, we have seen impressions up to 5,25,000 on a heatset web, 2,00,000 on a coldset web, and 1,25,000 for conventional and UV sheetfed applications using Sonora, under standard press conditions." The benefits are: lesser remake of plates and headache of maintaining different qualities of plates.

According to Nikumb, Sonora, can be used for superior print quality as well as to reduce environmental impact & save cost. He mentioned, how some of Sonora customers have got rid of the running or ageing processor after successfully using Sonora plates on their CTPs.

TechNova Imaging Systems

Wikipedia says, "Chemical free or chemical-free is a term used in marketing to imply that a product is safe, healthy or environmentally friendly because it only contains natural ingredients. From a chemist's perspective, the term is a misnomer, as all substances and objects are composed entirely of chemicals and energy."

Melville Noronha, director for technology of TechNova Imaging Systems quotes from Wikipedia. And then he adds, "In essence, terms such as chem-free and green are metaphorical which really describe the endeavour in the direction of replacing the use of highly alkaline chemistry currently being used in conventional plates and hazardous printing chemicals with environment-friendly formulations.

Noronha adds, "Using environment-friendly systems and consumables undoubtedly increases the green credentials of any printer keen to minimize their environmental impact."

When we ask him how so, He replies, that chem-free plates use a near-neutral PH gum to clean the non-image area coating against conventional plates, which need a highly alkaline (around 12 PH) developer. Secondly, a cem-free system also replaces an acidic gum by the same neutral pH clean out gum as a finisher.  

According to Noronha by adopting TechNova’s chem-free violet CTP plates, "the Indian newspapers have been able to save more than 130 million litres of water, eliminate the use of 15 lakh litres of chemistry and 1.5 million units of electricity, thereby bringing about a significant reduction in the overall carbon footprint of the industry."

When PrintWeek probed him about chemistry-free, he said, "It would be a bit of scepticism I say that there is nothing like chem-free. Even water (H2O) is a chemical and air is also made of chemical elements. Put one word 'clean' in front of water and air, and they become the most challenging to achieve. Ask any chemical engineer!

Today Noronha and his team at TechNova also offer process-free plates. He says, "Our endeavour is to make the pressroom a safe place. We will continue to pursue the noble purpose of ‘Go Green’ to make the Indian print community conscious of the environmental impacts, in addition to the launching environment safe products."

He signs off, "It is important for us that TechNova contributes in its own small way to protect our Earth and its natural resources."

Industry needs clear definitions

Ramu Ramanathan says, "Chem Free is not possible. 'Chemistry Free' is achievable."

The definition of chemistry is very loose and can be used to cover a variety of solutions. A decade ago, Fujifilm believed that, if the solution used to finish the processing of the plate has what is known as an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) supplied with it, then this solution has to be chemistry.

I recall print technologist Andrew Tribute saying, "The MSDS defines the chemical and environmental aspects of the solution, but other factors can be used to define if a plate solution is chemistry-free or not. If the solution cannot be disposed of in the normal drainage, then it is chemistry. Also, a Ph value of 7 is neutral and traditional plate chemistries are alkaline solutions with Ph value around 12. The Ph value of Fujifilm Brillia HD Pro-V is under 10." Therefore, the usage of low-chem.

Today, the environment and sustainability are firmly in the mainstream. Environmental management is not an add-on, but something that needs to be incorporated into the core business strategy if its full business benefits are to be realised. If handled sensibly, this can accrue significant and sustained savings from increased efficiency and reduced waste.

Ramanathan concludes, "Point is, we need clear definitions that can be adopted in India. Printers need accurate information in order to comply with ever-stricter environmental controls and it needs manufacturers to provide non-misleading information."

Did you know - chemistry trivia

Every hydrogen atom in your body is 13.5 billion years old; and they were created at the birth of the universe.

Chemists classify glasses as amorphous solids— a state somewhere between those two states of matter.

Don't berate carbon, too much. Diamond and graphite are made of carbon and nothing else.

The smartphone you use 24/7 is thanks to lithium. The name comes from the Greek word “lithos” meaning stone or rock.

From outer space, earth is blue (74% of the surface is covered by liquid or frozen water) and Mars is red (because of iron oxide).

Water (hydrogen and oxygen) expands when it freezes, unlike other substances.

Nitrogen and oxygen make up the majority of the earth’s atmosphere.

Aluminum deployed for printing plates is also used in subsonic aeroplane wings.


Advantages of Chem Free

When a printer selects chem-free plates over conventional plates, they accrue some additional benefits besides avoiding usage of hazardous processing chemicals on the shopfloor. These are listed as the following:

Benefit 1: Saves Chemistry Cost

The gum required to clean out in a chem-free system is approximately half of the developing chemistry required for a conventional system. 


Benefit 2: Saves Water

Chem-free plates do not require pre-wash and post-wash (rinse) with water. This saves approximately 1.5 to 2 litres of water per sq/mtr.

Benefit 3: Saves costly space

Chem-free plates require a cleanout Unit (COU) whereas a processor is used for processing of conventional plates. COU requires approximately 25% less footprint.

Benefit 4: Low maintenance, cost-saving on rollers replacement, electricity etc.

Cleanout units used for chem-free plates do not use harsh chemicals and the pre-wash & post-wash stations are eliminated. This saves the cost of expensive rollers, significantly less maintenance, and less power needed to drive it. Some chem-free COU's are factory set, are operator friendly and require no further setting in the pre-press

Benefit 5: Less waste generation, less disposal costs.

Since chem-free plates do not use developer, replenisher and water, there is a considerable reduction in effluents resulting in savings of disposal costs.

(Data inputs: TechNova Imaging Systems)