“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)

Renewable Energy Flooring Takes a Step Forward at Union South

The University of Wisconsin released the following article by Will Cushman about the advancement of a project the Forest Products Laboratory has been a collaborator on. Read on to see how simply walking on a wood floor can generate electricity!

Visitors to UW–Madison’s Union South walk across a section of floor designed and installed by College of Engineering researchers to capture the energy of footsteps and turn it into usable electricity. Photo: Adrienne Nienow

As thousands of visitors each day walk across a new flooring installation in UW–Madison’s Union South this fall, they might not realize they’re participating in what could very well represent a leap into the future of renewable energy production.

A research team led by Xudong Wang, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of materials science and engineering, in collaboration with the UW–Madison Grainger Institute for Engineering, has installed a high-tech flooring prototype that harvests the energy of footsteps and converts it into electricity. Continue reading

Wood Preservatives: New Report Explores Directions and Possibilities

A new report has just been published: Wood Protection Research Council, Research Priorities 2013

In this report, authors Carol A. Clausen, Frederick Green III, Grant T. Kirker, and Stan T. Lebow report on findings and recommendations from the Wood Protection Research Council.

Why wouldn’t a homeowner want to build with wood? Sometimes homeowners do not select wood as a building material because of its vulnerability to biodeterioration by fungi and insects under certain conditions of storage and use. These limitations are also a prime cause of user dissatisfaction. Therefore, efforts to protect wood from biological degradation are among the earliest research at the Forest Products Laboratory. This research has successfully reduced the demand for lumber from our National Forests by reducing the need to repeatedly replace existing wood products.

WPRC-cover-art

The cycle of wood harvest, research, and use protects our natural resources.

Wood protection has undergone dynamic changes since the industry voluntarily withdrew chromated copper arsenate (CCA) from most residential uses and new products were introduced to the marketplace. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “CCA is a chemical wood preservative containing chromium, copper and arsenic. CCA is used in pressure treated wood to protect wood from rotting due to insects and microbial agents. EPA has classified CCA as a restricted use product, for use only by certified pesticide applicators.”

Obviously, alternatives for wood protection are needed. However, to bring a new preservative to the marketplace, a considerable amount of performance data needs to be obtained. Current laboratory methodologies to determine the durability of test specimens are insufficient, and long-term field testing is required to ensure that a treatment is effective.

Improved accelerated test methods to predict performance would reduce the time needed for the development and acceptance of new preservatives. Potential improvements for accelerated testing may include selection of test fungi, techniques to detect incipient stages of fungal decay, methods to properly assess durability of wood plastic composites use of rapid laboratory bioassays for screening, and field tests that could measure loss in mechanical properties and statistical analysis.

Possibilities and research opportunities abound. For instance, protection systems could be targeted to specific problems. With nanotechnology at the forefront, novel advances in wood protection could replace the broad spectrum biocides traditionally used to inhibit decay fungi. The most logical approach to develop targeted biocides is to take advantage of unique physiological attributes of decay fungi, such as their ability to sequester metals through production of oxalic acid or natural tolerance to preservatives. Discerning and describing these mechanisms may enable us to design specific, targeted inhibitors to control decay and circumvent preservative tolerances that are common in brown-rot basidiomycetes.

This report summarizes presentations and comments from the inaugural Wood Protection Research Council meeting. Research needs for the wood protection industry were iden­tified and prioritized. Methods for successfully addressing research needs were discussed by industry, academia, and association representatives.

 

 

 

Looking into the Future of Wood Preservation

Carol Clausen and her group are serious about wood as a sustainable and versatile building material. Here Amy Blodgett, Rachel Arango, and Bessie Woodword check soil block samples in their ongoing research.

Amy-B--Rachel-A--Bessie-W(1)

Members of the Durability and Wood Protection Research Unit check soil block samples.

The soil block decay test method determines the minimum amount of preservative that is effective in preventing decay of selected species of wood by selected fungi under optimum laboratory conditions. Conditioned blocks of wood are impregnated with solutions, emulsions, or dispersions of a preservative in water or suitable organic solvent to form one or more series of retentions of the preservative in the blocks. After periods of conditioning or weathering, the impregnated blocks are exposed to recognized destructive species of both brown-rot and white-rot wood-destroying fungi.

Speaking about her work, Clausen says that wood’s “increased use in construction minimizes life-cycle impacts of a structure while maximizing carbon storage for the life of the structure.” An upcoming report by Clausen, Frederick Green III, Grant Kirker, and Stan Lebow summarizes presentations and comments from the inaugural Wood Protection Research Council meeting, where research needs for the wood protection industry were identified and prioritized.

As a part of that conversation, Clausen states that chemicals used to protect wood from deterioration by fungi and insects have generally been broad-spectrum biocides that have been discovered by the traditional screening approach. However, a more logical approach is to develop selective and targeted biocides by defining the target first, characterizing that target, and then designing inhibitors based on the mechanism of action of the defined biotarget.

Despite substantial progress in explaining the biochemistry of wood degradation, biochemical targets for fungal inhibition have seldom been described. Discovering the mechanism of preservative tolerance(s) in economically important fungi and insects will enable researchers to design preservative systems that neutralize, block, prevent, and eliminate the preservative tolerance. Development of a genetic database of microbial activity during the process of wood deterioration will offer a better understanding of precisely how and when decay or insect attack begins. A molecular database would provide myriad of capabilities to the wood preservation community. For example, researchers could characterize decay risks for a particular location, define the prevalence of tolerant fungi on a national and international basis, and determine the influence of preservative exposure on the ecology at test plots.

The next generation of novel wood protection methods may incorporate nanotechnology for design or controlled delivery of biocides for improved durability of building materials, with an emphasis on engineered composites. Nanotechnology may also play a vital role in the development of water-resistant coatings and treatments for the prevention of fire. Results from basic research on genetic analysis, biochemical processes, nanotechnology, and characterization of biotargets will lead to technological developments that extend the service life of wood and wood-based materials in all major end uses emphasizing environmentally friendly methods.

 

FPL’s Cutting-Edge Nano Work is Front-Page News

Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society, just ran a comprehensive cover story on nanocellulose titled Nano From the Forest. In the four-page feature, reporter Mitch Jacoby covers topics from fundamental research to commercialization efforts, and includes an excellent, short video of how nanocellulose is produced here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).

Engineer Rick Reiner operates FPL's nanocellulose pilot plant.

Engineer Rick Reiner operates FPL’s nanocellulose pilot plant.

Many FPL projects were highlighted, including work on aerogels, flexible electronic screens, and solar cells, as were several fascinating projects by researchers around the world who are getting creative with this strong, lightweight, green material.

So read all about it! And enjoy!

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