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Understanding Why Printers Do Not Work Without Ink

2010-05-27

It can be very frustrating - the inkjet or laser printer is fired up, a document is submitted, and an error message appears: ink is out. The ink levels get checked, and it's the magenta ink cartridge that's empty. But the document is in black and white! Who needs magenta for that? Still, the printer won't do the job until you go and get a new cartridge and install it. The same thing happens with your color laser printer - no black and white until an empty color printer toner cartridge is replaced. So what gives?

To understand why printers don't work without ink, it's necessary to understand why they do work when they have ink. Take inkjet printers first. They work as their name implies: a moving printer head travels across the paper as the paper is fed through the machine, and during each pass various color inks from several ink cartridges is sprayed onto the paper in miniscule dots, in patterns that create colors and shading, and thus the picture or document is printed. These little sprays are created by either heat (thermal) or mechanical pressure (piezoelectric). A color laser printer uses special drums that use static electricity to pick up toner and transfer it to the paper. Some use multiple passes, one for each color, on the same sheet of paper to create a three- or four-color print, and some high-end laser printers use individual drums, one for each color.

For inkjet printers to work, the printer head must function perfectly. The amount of ink sprayed is in the picoliter range (picoliter=one trillionth of a liter). The apertures are correspondingly extremely tiny. Since a clogged printer head is ruined, the machine uses some ink to clean and lubricate the printer head. That means if the printer ink cartridge contains insufficient ink to accomplish this maintenance, the machine won't allow any printing. For color laser printers, a tiny amount of toner residue is scraped off the drum with a blade and returned to the printer toner reservoir after each pass. The toner also lubricates the drum, so if the printer is run with an empty toner cartridge, there is a possibility of scratching the drum, rendering it useless. So no printing is allowed.

But what about the black and white document, why can't that be printed? The answer to that is that printers (unless the printer is a black and white laser printer) don't print a "true" black. They mix in various levels of color to give a more pleasing black, and to keep the printer head clean. Although it's annoying, for a printer, refusing to run with an empty ink cartridge is simple good preventive maintenance. Respect it.

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