“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)

Turning Up the Heat: Fires Test Performance of Tall Wood Buildings

Wood buildings provide an array of economic and environmental benefits. Interest in capitalizing on those benefits by constructing mid- to high-rise buildings using cross-laminated timber (CLT) is growing. CLT is made from layers of dried lumber boards stacked in alternating direction at 90-degree angles, glued and pressed to form solid panels. These panels have exceptional strength and stability and can be used as walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, calculations have shown that a seven-inch floor made of CLT has a fire resistance of two hours.

In order for wood structures to rise above six stories without special building official permission, changes to the International Building Code are needed. It’s a tall order, but researchers from the Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) recently completed a series of fire tests that will address concerns about fire performance of wood buildings and help take them to new heights. Continue reading

Technology Helps Turn Salvaged Trees into Moneymakers

When insect scourges run rampant through forested ecosystems they can leave behind entire stands of dead and dying trees – especially if that scourge is the spruce budworm. In the Upper Midwest, where the spruce budworm infests forests on a cyclic 30-50 year pattern, forest managers oftentimes use salvaged logs from the dead and dying trees to produce low-value wood products, such as wood pulp, or merely count the dead trees as a loss and leave them standing.

Spruce budworm mortality,
Chequamegon–Nicolet
National Forest, Summer
2014 (Steven Katovich, USDA
Forest Service, Bugwood.org).

But Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researchers developed ways to evaluate the quality of salvaged wood and sort out the higher-quality wood for production of cross-laminated timber (CLT) – a high-value wood product that can increase forest revenues. “We’re at the point of demonstrating commercially available technologies,” said FPL engineer Robert Ross, “and the idea that we can take high-grade material out [of dead tree stands].” Continue reading

CLT and ‘America’s Forests’: Television Program Highlights Benefits of Sustainable Building

A new public television series focused on maintaining and sustaining healthy forests in America kicked off by exploring cross-laminated timber (CLT) and the future of green building.

In the premiere episode of America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell, music industry giant and tree conservationist Chuck Leavell steps into the world of sustainable construction, as he investigates the innovative possibilities of building with CLT. Continue reading

“Timber Innovation Act” Resurfaces in Congress

A bill promoting the construction of tall wood buildings has been reintroduced to Congress.

CLT offers outstanding structural, thermal, and acoustic performance.

Cross laminated timber makes tall wood buildings possible.

The bipartisan Timber Innovation Act is an effort to spur economic development with new and innovative uses for wood as a building material. The legislation will accelerate the research and development of wood for use in construction projects, focusing on the construction of buildings more than 85 feet tall.

Reaching such great heights requires the use of mass timber products, such as cross laminated timber, or CLT. Researchers here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have been studying CLT from all angles, including engineering properties, fire and moisture performance, and how they hold up during earthquakes. A quick search of this blog turns up a great reading list on CLT if you’d like to learn more.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, joined Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and U.S. Representatives Suzan DelBene (WA-01) and Glenn Thompson (PA-05) to reintroduce the bill.

“Advancing tall wood building construction through the Timber Innovation Act is a win for working families and our environment,” DelBene said. “Technological advancements in cross-laminated timber have made it easier for us to support healthy forests, wildlife habitats and rural economies dependent on forest products. Encouraging the use of green building materials instead of building materials dependent on fossil fuels reduces greenhouse gases creating a cleaner, healthier environment for future generations.”