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Ink Technology: The Difference Between a Toner and a Cartridge

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The world of print systems is constantly changing. From large office copy machines to personal printers in your home, the science behind printing systems tends to get complicated. One of the most basic questions that users tend to find themselves asking is, “Toner or cartridge?”  The little blinking light on your printer is saying “Replace cartridge”  or “toner low,” but what is the difference between the two?


First, let’s talk about toners, which can be slightly more complicated. Toner is a powder that creates the text/images on the paper, and it is most commonly found in laser printers or photocopiers. The carbon is blended with a polymer, either a Styrene Acrylate Copolymer or a Polyester Resin, which improves the overall quality of the print job. The particles of the toner are melted by the fuser’s heat, which causes them to bind themselves to the paper. The formulations for the toner vary with each manufacturer, and even from machine to machine. The most variation is found within the formulation, melt point, and granule size.

The toner’s original particle size measured 14-16 micrometers or more, but to improve the resolution of the image, the particle size was condensed, ending in about about 8–10 m for 600 dots per inch resolution. As technology continues to push forward, more and more improvements are being made, and the particle size will continue to shrink, refining the resolution. One noteworthy new technology is the Emulsion-Aggregation, which Nanowek News calls “an era of more energy efficient digital printing, preparing for the production of Ultra Low-Melt EA Toner, a breakthrough product that can cut overall power consumption of digital printing devices by as much as 15 to 30 percent.” In earlier models, toner was actually poured from a bottle into the machine’s reservoir, but today’s machines feed right from the cartridge.

An ink cartridge is replaceable, containing ink (and sometimes the print-head itself), and is spread over the paper during the printing. Simply stated, it is a liquid. Each ink cartridge contains at least one ink reservoir, and often contain several for color printing.

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