Wood Stronger Than Steel: A New High-Tech Material

While nothing can be quite as beautiful as a simple, natural piece of solid lumber, recent innovations in the area of high tech wood products celebrate just how much potential and versatility there is within a working forest. Scientists have developed a new process that can transform any species of wood into a material stronger than steel – and even some high-tech titanium alloys. According to Scientific American, this new “super material” could be used to make everything from ultra-tall wooden buildings to bullet-resistant armor plates.

Abundant, renewable and low-cost, wood is already an invaluable resource, especially in its ability to store carbon, which could help mitigate climate change. But its many uses have just expanded dramatically thanks to a strengthening treatment developed by Liangbing Hu, a materials scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. Hu and his colleagues learned that a two-step process beginning with boiling wood in a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sodium sulfite (Na2SO3) to partially remove lignin and hemicellulose, compressing the treated wood until its cell walls collapse and then maintaining its compression as it’s gently heated encourages the formation of chemical bonds between large numbers of hydrogen atoms and in adjacent cellulose nanofibers.

The results are impressive. The team’s compressed wood is three times as dense as the untreated substance, Hu says, adding that its resistance to being ripped apart is increased more than 10-fold. It also can become about 50 times more resistant to compression and almost 20 times as stiff. The densified wood is also substantially harder, more scratch-resistant and more impact-resistant. It can be molded into almost any shape. Perhaps most importantly, the densified wood is also moisture-resistant: In lab tests, compressed samples exposed to extreme humidity for more than five days swelled less than 10 percent—and in subsequent tests, Hu says, a simple coat of paint eliminated that swelling entirely.

A five-layer, plywood-like sandwich of densified wood stopped simulated bullets fired into the material—a result Hu and his colleagues suggest could lead to low-cost armor. The material does not protect quite as well as a Kevlar sheet of the same thickness—but it only costs about 5 percent as much, he notes.

This densified wood could offer an alternative to expensive steel, aluminum alloys and carbon-fiber alternatives, even for applications like vehicles. It remains to be seen whether the scientists can scale up and accelerate the process in order to launch it into widespread use, but if they manage to do it, the possibilities for its use are virtually endless. Imagine a future in which we’re all driving wooden cars around!

Forget Plastic: Wood Can Now Be Used for 3D Printing

Wood Bioplastic 3D printing filament

As the world grapples with the environmental devastation plastic production has wrought, attempting to clean up a gyre of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean that’s twice the size of Texas and filter dangerous micro plastics out of our drinking water, some innovators are working on alternative materials with similar properties.

Plastic was initially envisioned as an environmental boon based on the misconception that cutting down trees for wood products is always a bad thing. (It’s not.) But its creators and champions failed to consider the end of the product’s lifecycle as well as the amount of energy and resources it requires to manufacture.

Not only are plastic recycling rates far too low, plastic can only be recycled so many times before it degrades into tiny particles that are difficult to see and clean up but harmful to the health of humans and wildlife. Since it doesn’t biodegrade naturally, it could take thousands of years for the planet to recover. Meanwhile, new technology like 3D printing still finds plastic to be an alluring material thanks to its flexibility and strength.

waste wood

Renewable, sustainable and biodegradable, wood is still a strong competitor for plastic, and now it can play a role in the 3D printing revolution as well. Canadian bioplastic company Advanced BioCarbon 3D (ABC3D) has developed wood-based bioplastic materials for engineering applications. It’s made of waste wood cut down during wood collection by forestry companies. Resin is extracted from the waste wood and the leftover wood is turned into a polymer. The resin is added back to the plastic to give it heat resistant and moisture resistant properties.

 “If we have extreme weather events happening all the time, it’s going to interrupt every part of society,” says ABC3D’s environmental scientist Kim Klassen. “So, climate change, above all other environmental concerns, is important and that is what this company addresses through product development, through sustainable bioplastics made from renewable resources.”

“People often think of bioplastics as single-use with low-value functionality, but our products are incredibly high-functioning with exceptionally high heat resistance while being lightweight … As an example, our goal is to be able to 3D print something like a piston for your car from this material – there’s such high heat resistance, and it’s also very strong,” says Darrel Fry, CEO of ABC3D.

Learn more at 3D Printing Industry.

How Information Technology and DNA Testing Are Boosting Sustainable Forestry

Trimble Connected Forests

We treasure our forests as wildlife habitats and peaceful, technology-free refuges where we can submerse ourselves in nature and forget the industrialized world outside. But not all technology is invasive, and some forms of it can actually help us preserve forests for generations to come.

We’ve already reported on how organizations like the Nature Conservancy are using new digital tools to make life much easier for timber managers, conservationists, park services and fire control to keep forests alive and thriving. Now, everyone from lumber producers to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations are using open-source information technology systems to achieve zero-deforestation supply chains, and experts predict that IT will continue to be a powerful driver in sustainable forest management in years to come.

According to a press release by the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), these technologies could enable detection of illegal logging operations and unchecked deforestation, and prevent the deprivation of sustainable livelihood opportunities for smallholders and local communities.

One example is the Connected Forest system by Trimble Forestry, which offers solutions for collecting, communicating and analyzing real-time information across and throughout the forestry business. Functions include harvest logistics, streamlined timber receiving at mill gates, the ability to analyze data from disparate mill sources, simplified financial transactions and management of the entire raw materials lifecycle from planning and planting to transporting and processing.

Researchers are also creating reference libraries of tree DNA that can confirm the true origin of timber that’s ready for export, ensuring that it wasn’t illegally harvested. Similar libraries could be created using other types of technology, like “automated wood anatomy,” which works like facial recognition for trees. Cracking down on illegal logging is an essential component of fighting deforestation and safekeeping sustainable, legal timber business.

“We have already seen the proliferation of technology in the tracing and validation of legality in forest-derived commodities,” says Kavickumar Muruganathan of Halycon Agri. “Scaling up and integrating the various technologies into existing forest certification systems would be the next step that all stakeholders in the forestry sector should collectively work towards.”

Image by Trimble Forestry

Game Changer: Engineered Wood Opens Doors in the Construction Market


Is engineered wood ‘the new concrete?’ As demand grows, some industry sources say mass timber is set to open new doors in construction for the lumber industry, offering lucrative opportunities at the intersection of timber and tech. Advances in the processes used to make cross-laminated timber and other engineered wood products have set up a boom for tall wooden buildings with similar if not better structural integrity than those made with steel and concrete, making the construction industry as a whole more environmentally friendly.

Made from industrially dried quick-growing wood – including pine – CLT is up to four times lighter than reinforced concrete. A building made with CLT instead of traditional concrete uses up to 70 percent less material and can cut construction times by a third, sending project profitability through the roof. Developers are definitely taking note.

In a recent issue of the property insurer GenRe’s ‘Property Matters’ publication, Property/Casualty Senior Consulting Underwriter Leo Ronken examines “what’s so good about wood,” going down a long list of the attributes that have made engineered wood increasingly popular with architects, legislators and construction pros.

“In the global trend toward the construction of buildings that meet ecological needs, wood has some clear advantages over traditional construction materials such as steel and concrete. With advances in engineered wood materials and components come possibilities to construct increasingly larger buildings – a trend being witnessed around the world.”

Real estate services firm JLL has also noted the trend and what it could mean moving forward, calling it a ‘game changer.’

“The emergence of successful mass timber projects across all sectors is a trend which looks set to continue and develop as the industry demands more innovation. As Lucas Epp, Head of Engineering at StructureCraft in North America, says mass timber projects require fewer construction workers on site, less waste and higher quality of work. ‘Mass timber office buildings are also now competing with steel and concrete on cost,’ he adds.”

The forest products industry has long depended on single family homes, but mass timber opens the possibility of entrance into new markets where wooden framing was previously seen as inappropriate. Buildings made with mass timber are able to meet strict building codes, including those measuring fire resistance.

Another benefit of increased demand for CLT is the fact that it can be made with smaller, second-growth timber, reducing the need for so many big, solid logs from older trees and fueling greater efficiency at mills.

Image via Woodworks.org

High-Tech Tools from The Nature Conservancy Make it Easier to Manage Forests


For decades, the easiest way to manage a forest tree-by-tree has been to simply take a walk through it with a can of spray paint, designating which trees need to come down. While there’s definitely nothing wrong with this old-school approach, The Nature Conservancy is cooking up some new high-tech forestry management tools that make the process a whole lot faster and more accurate. They’re testing their Digital Restoration Guide in Northern Arizona, where a million acres of ponderosa pine forest have burned in catastrophic wildfires over the last fifteen years.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Neil Chapman of The Nature Conservancy explains how digital tools can make it easier for timber managers, conservationists, park services and fire control to keep forests alive and thriving. Workers will still walk (or ride ATVs) around in the forests to get an in-person, up-close look at the trees, but instead of using spray paint, they’ll have a tablet in hand, noting the tree locations with GPS coordinates. The data can be adjusted, archived and sent to harvesters – resulting in a lot less paperwork and other labor on the back end.

forest fires app

This could be especially useful for larger forests, where you might need to keep track of hundreds of thousands of trees every year. In-cab GPS helps wood harvesters make sure they’re using the right treatment in the right location, and track the date, time and location of a tree cut to manage project contracts. In the future, bar codes could be used to follow trees from cut to wood product manufacturing.

It’s a pretty interesting advancement in tech for the industry, and it’ll be cool to see how it develops. Read more details at TechCrunch.

Innovative Wood Floors Made of Waste Pulp Generate Renewable Energy

waste wood energy 2

How do you make a renewable, natural, oxygen-producing, CO2-storing material even more sustainable? Make it as close to zero-waste as possible. Wood waste left over after milling lumber already gets put to myriad valuable uses, from paper products to biomass fuel, and a new innovation will actually enable it to produce clean energy. Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered a way to manufacture wood floors embedded with wood pulp nanofibers that generate electricity when you step on them.

Chemically treated, tiny cellulose fibers within the waste pulp produce an electrical charge when they come in contact with untreated nano fibers. Stepping on wood floors enhanced with these fibers generates electricity, effectively harnessing energy from footsteps without the need for complex equipment.

Published in the journal Nano Energy on September 24th, 2016, the method is ingeniously simple and inexpensive, with the potential to produce electricity that can be harnessed to power lights or charge batteries. The technology can easily be incorporated into virtually every kind of wood flooring that’s already on the market, including Eastern White Pine.

waste wood energy 1

The functional section of the wood containing the electricity-producing fibers takes up less than a millimeter in thickness, so it doesn’t significantly alter the shape or look of the wood. To produce more energy, manufacturers could simply add more layers.

The technology is currently being tested and optimized on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, with a prototype in development to demonstrate the concept.

“Our initial test in our lab shows that it works for millions of cycles without any problem,” says Xudong Wang, an associate professor of materials science and engineering who’s working on the project. “We haven’t converted those numbers into year of life for a floor yet, but I think with appropriate design it can definitely outlast the floor itself.”