The Promise of Wood-Based Nanotechnology

The concept of nanotechnology can be a tough one to grasp, and making a connection between wood-based nanomaterials and forest restoration might seem like a stretch.


Close-up of cellulose nanofibrils.

But a recent article in The Consultant, an annual magazine published by the Association of Consulting Foresters, provides a clear and comprehensive look at the science that is often deemed the way of the future and how it relates to forestry.

In short, “finding new, high-value, market-based outlets for excess forest biomass is vital to forest restoration.” Cellulose nanomaterials, with unique and desirable properties applicable across many industries, have the potential to provide solutions to costly forest restoration issues.

Forest Products Laboratory Director Michael T. Rains, Assistant Director Theodore Wegner, and Supervisory Research Chemist Alan Rudie co-authored the article. Topics covered include an explanation of wood-based nanomaterials and their properties, the scope of necessary forest restoration and the related costs, applications for nanocellulose, and how FPL and the Forest Service are working to move this promising technology forward.


A “Nexus of Innovation” for the U.S. Forest Service


FPL Director Michael Rains

In a recent feature story from, FPL Director Michael Rains describes the Forest Products Laboratory as “a one-of-a-kind resource at the intersection of many Forest Service goals.”

Rains, who is also director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, covers many crucial Forest Service R&D mission areas addressed by FPL research. Top among them for Rains includes getting “low value, crummy wood” out of dangerously overcrowded forests through accelerated restoration efforts to make “better use of woody biomass.”

The article, written by editor Bruce V. Bigelow (@bvbigelow on Twitter), also addresses new FPL developments in cellulose nanotechnology,  advanced composite materialsadvanced structures, using trees for bio-based fuels and chemicals, and public-private partnership projects through Cooperative Research and Development Agreements.


Forest Restoration: The Best Defense Against Wildfires

As wildfires rage across the western United States, firefighting crews work tirelessly to contain the blazes while costs to control the fires skyrocket. During these tough times, which now seem to occur without fail year after year, it becomes increasingly evident that our nation’s forests are in dire need of extensive restoration.wildfire2

A recent Forest Service article explains that properly managed forests – those free of underbrush and ladder fuels – serve as the best defense against the ravaging effects of wildfire, especially in an era of longer and more severe fire seasons associated with climate change.

Accelerated forest restoration activities promote forest health and reduce wildfire intensity by removing hazardous fuels.

FPL research demonstrates that low-value materials thinned from overgrown forests can be converted into products such as biocomposites, engineered wood products, bioenergy feedstocks, and cellulosic nanomaterials. The high value of these advanced materials can help offset the cost of restoration activities and promote economic growth.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has made accelerated restoration a cornerstone of his priorities during his tenure.

“Accelerated restoration efforts demonstrate a shared vision where environmentalists, forest industry and local communities are working together to build healthier forests and contribute to local economies,” said Tidwell. “The increased restoration work will benefit the environment and people, with more resilient ecosystems, improved watersheds and wildlife habitat, hazardous fuel reduction, and outputs of forest products. We hope accelerated restoration activities will bring all of our partners together, working as allies for forest conservation.”

Chief Tidwell Cites Conservation Opportunities, Challenges in Senate Hearing

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell addressed the challenges and opportunities facing the agency’s forest management efforts in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“We must manage and restore more acres to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, to address insects and disease, and to restore the ecological health of forests for the benefit of all Americans,” said Tidwell. “We know we cannot achieve all of this without a strong integrated forest products industry that can use all parts and sizes of trees to help us accomplish our restoration work.”

Tidwell said the Forest Service continues to explore new and existing tools to become more efficient on the 193 million acres it manages. This exploration includes a review of business practices around timber sales, becoming more efficient in its environmental review processes, and implementing a landscape-scale adaptive approach to treating existing and new pine beetle infestations, among other tools.

Restoring the health and resilience of the nation’s forests generates important amenity values. For example, through implementation of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program – which relies heavily on stewardship contracting – projects on national forests and grasslands maintained 4,174 jobs and generated more than $147 million in labor income in fiscal year 2012.

Wood energy projects also make forest harvests more economically viable by providing a productive use for previously undervalued woody biomass. The USDA Wood-to-Energy Initiative combines programs from the Forest Service and USDA Rural Development to expand renewable wood energy use, from rural community schools, hospitals, and National Guard facilities across the country.

This Forest Service press release expands on Tidwell’s testimony.

Forest Service Chief Talks Restoration via Harvesting

It may seem counterintuitive to say it is necessary to cut trees in order to save forests. But harvesting plays an important role in ensuring vibrant, healthy forests remain a part of America’s landscape.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell explained in a recent Times Observer article why harvesting is vital to both restoring the health of our nation’s forests and keeping private forested land from being developed for other uses.

According to Tidwell, out of the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, somewhere between 65 and 82 million acres need some form of restoration.

One example of restoration work is thinning out overcrowded forests to reduce their risk of being destroyed by catastrophic wildfire, disease, or insect infestation. Such efforts are costly, but selling the wood that is harvested can offset the steep price tag of restoration activities.

Tidwell also explained that thousands of acres of private forest lands are lost to development each year, a trend he hopes to see change with increased timber value.

Still, Tidwell acknowledges there are challenges that come with harvesting efforts in today’s economy.

Millions of acres of forest lands are in need of costly restoration work; harvesting can help offset those costs.

Millions of acres of forest lands are in need of costly restoration work; harvesting can help offset those costs.

“The challenge that we have is we need to find ways to do it, especially with these markets that we’ve had where the housing market in this country dropped to some of the lowest levels we’ve seen in a long time,” Tidwell added. “We need to be able to expand markets for wood.”

And that’s where the Forest Products Laboratory can make a big difference.

Researchers at FPL are working from many different angles to develop new uses for wood. From biofuels to high-rise wood buildings to nanocellulose, the world of forest products is expanding far beyond traditional lumber and paper.

And with heightened interest in the environmental impacts of our daily lives, wood is the way to go.

“It’s the greenest building material,” Tidwell said.

# # # #