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  • Max Conradt

How to eat a book

When it comes to food people typically think about things such as meat, bread, and stuff like that. In this article I will be discussing how paper is just made of simple arrangements of sugar and how they could be reformed into an edible form. The goal of this article is to broaden your horizon on the biochemistry around us. So without further ado please enjoy.

Picture this: The apocalypse has just happened. Luckily (or not) you have managed to flee and grabed a bag of supplies and are currently hiding in a chemical storage facility. All of a sudden you realize that you have accidentally brought your school bag instead of your supplies with you. Now, someone in your situation might consider eating some mercury to avoid death by starvation, which unbeknownst to them would cause a slow and painful death. But, before you reach for the cyanide instead know this: Virtually every living being on this planet eats one thing, sugar. This may seem random, but bear with me for just a moment. And what do they do with that sugar? Two things. One they burn it for energy. Two they use it to grow. Now open one of your books. What is it made of? Paper. What's that made of? Wood. What's that made of? Trees. What are they made of? Cellulose (mostly). And what’s that? A polymer of sugars!

There are two issues though. The first is that we can't actually digest cellulose and the second is that textbook pages aren't 100% paper. The second issue is easy to solve. To remove most of the contaminants the book must be cut into small pieces, boiled in soapy water to remove the ink and then strained through a screen to remove bits of plastic. Coincidently, this is also the first step in solving the first issue. I should probably clarify the solution to the first problem. During the course of evolution, many organisms have adapted to be able to digest cellulose and the enzymes they use to do that are commercially available. Enzymes, for those who don’t know, are chemicals which facilitate/catalyse certain chemical reactions. These enzymes are: endocellulase, which separates the individual polymer chains, exocellulase which breaks the chains down into smaller sugars and lastly cellobiase, which breaks those sugars down into individual glucose molecules.


Now that you know how it works it's time to do the math.

Each gram of “page” has 0.8% debris (assuming that the page is double printed{and yes, I did measure pieces of paper to get this number}) meaning that it’s 0.992 grams of cellulose.

The enzymatic conversion is ~66% efficient, so that brings us to a total amount of 0.6547 grams of glucose. Each gram of glucose gives off 4 kCal worth of energy, so you would end up with 2.619 kCal per gram of page. That is enough to keep an average adult male alive for ~1.5 minutes or 91 seconds.

Using this formula (grams of book * 0.992* 0.66 * 4 = x kcal) I checked how many kCal some school books have.

German: 896 * 2.619 = 2346kCal (tastes kind of like schnitzel)

Math: 666 * 2.619 = 1744kCal (I didn’t make the number up)

History: 632 * 2.619 = 1655kCal (it’s somewhat stale)

Quality Land: 283 * 2.619 = 741kCal (now that’s some quality food)

Fahrenheit 451: 216 * 2.619 = 565kCal (boiling isn't burning)

Chemistry: 1086 * 2.619 = 2844kCal (this one could have been useful)

So let's just hope that you're in a biochemistry storage facility.


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