FPL Researchers Pioneering Steps into a Sustainable Plastics Future

As the public focuses more on climate change and sustainability solutions, the numbers and facts can be staggering, nearly crippling to think about. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, and our fish seem to be drowning in plastic instead of thriving under the sea. A June 2020, National Geographic article that projected 600 million metric tons of plastic waste in the ocean by 2040 if global plastic habits don’t change.

Hearing these projections and statistics can be discouraging and scary.

Ronald Sabo
Engineered Composites Science
Research Materials Engineer

But fear not, people like Forest Products Laboratory’s (FPL) Ron Sabo and his team of researchers are looking up the mountain, seeing the goal of a sustainable-eco-plastic future at the top and taking on the challenge with the diligent steps needed to make that future a reality.

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Research on Electronic Components Made from Wood Continues to Advance

The Forest Products Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) have a history of collaboration aimed at making electronic components from wood. From flexible electronic screens to computer chips, this partnership has produced fascinating results. Learn more about the latest development in the following article from the UW.

Critical communications component made on a flexible wooden film

By Jason Daley

In the not-too-distant future, flexible electronics will open the door to new products like foldable phones, tablets that can be rolled, paper-thin displays and wearable sensors that monitor health data. Developing these new bendy products, however, means using materials like new plastics and thin films to replace the rigid circuit boards and bulky electronic components that currently occupy the interiors of cell phones and other gadgets.

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Wood-Infused Concrete Put to the Test

Repaving a parking lot isn’t generally something we’d get too excited about here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). That is, unless the project incorporates wood, in which case, we’re totally stoked.

Test site for cellulose nanomaterial-enhanced concrete in Greenville, S.C. Photo credit: Michael Goergen

And that’s exactly what happened in Greenville, South Carolina, at the headquarters for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (Endowment). A parking lot there has become the largest test site in the world for cellulose nanomaterial (CN)-enhanced concrete, which FPL researchers and partners at the Endowment, Oregon State University, and Purdue University have found to have improved properties over traditional concrete.

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Researchers to Use Wood-infused Concrete in California Bridge

This transmission electron microscope shows cellulose nanocrystals, tiny structures derived from renewable sources that have been shown to increase strength of concrete. Image: Purdue Life Sciences Microscopy Center

Civil and Structural Engineer (CSE) Magazine recently published an article about an exciting advancement in the practical application of cellulose nanomaterials – using nanocellulose as an additive to concrete.

Purdue University researchers, who have been long-time partners of the Forest Products Laboratory, have been studying whether concrete is made stronger by infusing it with microscopic-sized nanocrystals from wood. Their research is now moving from the laboratory to the real world with a bridge that will be built in California this spring.

“Simply getting out there where people can actually drive on it, I think, is a huge step because you can’t just say it’s a lab curiosity at that point. It has real-world implications,” said Jeffrey Youngblood, a Purdue professor of materials engineering.

Read the full article here to find out how minuscule wood particles can make concrete stronger, and the many added benefits researchers are discovering through this project.

“The Revolutionary Role of Wood in our Future”: USDA blog post highlights FPL research

The following is a post on the USDA blog highlighting research from the Forest Products Laboratory and the Northern Research Station. The original post can be seen here.

The Revolutionary Role of Wood in our Future

by David N. Bengston, Research and Development, USDA Forest Service

T3 Building in Minneapolis

The T3 Building in Minneapolis was constructed using cross-laminated timber, or CLT. Made from layers of wood crisscrossed and held together by fire-resistant glue, CLT is as strong as structural steel and greatly speeds up construction. (Photo credit: MGA | Michael Green Architecture, DLR Group; photo by Ema Peter; winner of a WoodWorks Wood Design Award)

Some people are just way ahead of their time. In the mid-20th century, when most people thought of wood as an archaic and low-tech material, Egon Glesinger foresaw the revolutionary role it would play in our future, described in his book The Coming Age of Wood.

Scientists in the Northern Research Station’s new Strategic Foresight Group developed a horizon scanning system to identify emerging issues and trends that could be game-changers. A theme that has emerged is the wave of amazing innovations in wood products that could prove Mr. Glesinger right.

For example, wood-based nanomaterials have been produced at the Forest Products Lab (FPL) for more than five years. This renewable, biodegradable material can be used to make computer chips, flexible computer displays, car panels, replacement tendons – for humans – and coatings that keep food fresh longer.

Tall wood buildings, or plyscrapers, are sprouting up across the globe today, built with cross-laminated timber (CLT) and based on research from the FPL and elsewhere. CLT is made from layers of wood crisscrossed and held together by fire-resistant glue. It is as strong as structural steel, greatly speeds up construction, and has a much lower carbon footprint than steel and concrete buildings.

Power-generating wood flooring is being tested at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a collaboration between the University’s College of Engineering and the FPL. Made mostly from recycled wood pulp, the flooring is chemically treated to produce an electrostatic charge as people walk across it. The charge can power lights and smart building sensor networks, and charge batteries.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Students generate electricity while they walk the floors of the student union building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Made mostly from recycled wood pulp, the flooring captures the energy of footsteps and turns it into usable electricity. (Photo by Adrienne Nienow)

The list of high-tech innovations in wood products goes on. Cellulose from wood pulp could be cheaper and stronger than petroleum-based polymers currently used for 3-D printing . Fabric made from wood fibers could revolutionize both the textile and forest industry. Wood nails can be driven into solid structural timber without drilling pilot holes. A new process chemically removes lignin from natural wood fibers to produce a transparent wood substitute for glass windows and solar cells. And biodegradable electronics could someday help curb the problem of e-waste.

These and many other marvels of wood product innovation could make the 21st century the century of wood , increasing demand for wood, leading to increased tree planting to meet demand, and the development of markets for wood currently lacking market value. Importantly, thinning overgrown forests with high fuel loads to supply these markets may also decrease wildfire risk.

Wood-based nanomaterials

Wood-based nanomaterials can be used to make electronic components like this one pictured, computer chips, car panels, replacement tendons, and coatings that keep food fresh longer. (US Forest Service courtesy photo)