Why Is Printer Ink So Expensive?

Printer ink cartridges

Hlinkazsolt / Getty Images

You've heard all the comparisons before. For example, if you were to compare prices per gallon, you'd find that printer ink is more expensive than any other liquid except possibly Chanel No. 5, LSD, and cobra venom.

Exactly Why Is Printer Ink So Expensive?

That's a question we posed to Thom Brown, the resident ink expert at HP. Thom first politely debunked the idea that you could learn anything of use by an apples-to-oranges comparison of printer ink to most other liquids, as an enormous amount of time and engineering effort goes into creating printer ink — and when you buy a new inkjet cartridge, you're also buying a highly complex printhead that allows the ink to make letters on a page or create that amazingly sharp photograph. Look instead, he says, at pure consumption and things look different. A can of Red Bull may cost as much as $4 but the pleasure, if that's what you call it, lasts only a few minutes, while an inkjet cartridge can last for months or hundreds of pages at a rate of only pennies per page.

And to hear Thom describe it, it is amazing that inkjet cartridges work at all. The idea for inkjet printing came about, he says, in the 1970s when an HP engineer was watching a percolator coffee cup and marveling that the process could take place without any moving parts, simply with heat energy, and wondered if a similar process could put ink onto a page. On a thermal inkjet cartridge, it does.

How Do Ink Cartridges Work?

"An inkjet cartridge has to sit on a shelf waiting to be purchased, and then sit in your printer," he says. "So the ink is in liquid form and has to be stable for as much as 18 months at a time." When the printer is used, that stable liquid changes states very quickly as the ink goes through the firing nozzle (each cartridge has hundreds of these, each of them one-third the width of a human hair). Brown says the ink 300 degrees Celsius for about a nanosecond as it's fired, with each nozzle firing as much as 36,000 times a second. (In case you've ever wondered, the ink is moving at about 30 miles per hour at this stage — and in terms of distance and accuracy, the ink drop being guided to its proper spot on the paper is, Brown says, roughly analogous to dropping a grape off a 30-story building into a bucket on the sidewalk.) It has to hit the paper with a perfectly round drop, or else it won't appear correctly in the resulting image. And then it has to dry instantly and, one hopes, be unchanging for the life of the document or photo. It's hard not to agree with Brown when he laughs and says, "It's amazing that it works at all."

The complexity of each ink is the reason that he counsels people not to refill their cartridges, although HP does not take steps to prevent people from doing so, he says — in fact, they are so confident that people will have a negative experience with refills that they now offer an Ink Amnesty Program where, if you share your experience with ink refills, they'll offer a 20 percent discount on a replacement cartridge. You don't need to submit a hard-luck story either, though Brown says the chances are you will, since a Lyra Research report from 2009 noted that 50 percent of those who had tried retail services that refill empty printer cartridges were "mostly unsatisfied" with the experience (fewer than 30 percent were "mostly satisfied").​

Browns says that it takes HP on average three to five years to develop a new cartridge, with about 1,000 prototypes built and discarded along the way. The reason there are so many is to cater to the vastly different needs of consumers, and changing a single of the dozen or so ingredients can tank a new recipe in terms of reliability and stability. "There's more to ink than water and dye," he points out, and since their formulations are proprietary, companies that make refills are certain not be using the same formulation. That can result in clogged printheads or unreliable performance.