Helping on the Home Front: War-Worn Wood Relishes in Retirement

From building aircraft parts during times of metal scarcity to educating Department of Defense employees on the best ways to package materiel for shipment to the front lines of World War II, researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have always been willing to lend a hand to support the military in a time of need.

But sometimes, the mission is less conventional than providing for an operational force in a foreign land.

The Wood Crate Design Manual is a popular historic example of FPL research in collaboration with the Department of Defense.

Here in the United States, the U.S. Army estimates that there are over 250 million board feet of lumber and timber in World War II-era buildings slated for demolition. Since the 1990s, FPL scientists have worked cooperatively with the Army to recycle and reuse more than 4,700 cubic meters of this lumber and timber in new construction projects.

To find this in action, look no further than the Research Demonstration House at FPL. The flooring in one of the upstairs bedrooms is made of old-growth Douglas fir salvaged from military barracks originally built in the 1940s. The flooring material was provided by the Ft. Ord Reuse Authority in Marina, California, and stands in contrast to the adjacent room, which uses new, albeit small-diameter, Douglas fir. In addition to keeping wood out of landfills, the floor bears the character of 60+ years of military service, including original nail holes from its previous career.

Recycling this material has been limited by a lack of appropriate science-based grading rules and engineering design values, and consequently, much of it ends up as waste in landfills. FPL researchers continue to work on developing new and accurate grading systems to ensure that residual properties of recycled lumber and timber will meet the performance requirements of new applications. This way, with scientific data and performance information, industry and design professionals can be confident the integrity of their buildings is not compromised.

The military is only one potential source of recycled wood, however, as it is estimated one billion board feet of lumber is landfilled in the United States each year. Deconstruction offers a means of reusing this material for valuable products, and in some cases, recycling operations can provide economic opportunities for local communities.


FPL’s Research Demonstration House is home to a host of innovative approaches for using wood. A bedroom on the second floor utilizes recycled Douglas fir provided by the U.S. military.

Although these efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the wooden propeller and ship manufacturing industry of years ago, they play an important role in this nation’s defense industry. Recycled lumber and timbers in new construction conserves existing forests, encourages the most efficient use of harvested materials, and makes our military, forests, and communities stronger.

For more information, please see FPL publications Evaluation of Lumber Recycled from an Industrial Military Building, and Engineering Evaluation of 55-year Old Timber Columns Recycled From an Industrial Military Building.

FPL Partner Procures Patent: Better Building With BioSIPS

Whether serving as a bookshelf, tabletop, or wall panel, the composite board is a ubiquitous construction material found in furniture and homes alike. Traditional composite boards use mankind’s most trusted building resource, wood, as a base — but a new patented process using waste products stands to revolutionize the familiar building material, making it even more sustainable and environmentally friendly.


BioSIPS use low-value recycled material to make high-value structural materials.

Julee Herdt, a professor at the University of Colorado – Denver, and Kellen Schauermann, a former graduate student, were recently awarded a patent for their Bio-Structural Insulated Panels (BioSIPS) system. BioSIPS are structural boards comprised of waste material such as recycled paper, noxious weeds, industrial hemp, and forest debris.

Herdt, the CEO and president of BioSIPS Inc., hopes that her product will help ease the environmental and energy concerns of tomorrow.

Although wood-based Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) have been around for some time, Herdt’s BioSIPS, made from 100% recycled material, could replace their conventional wood counterparts. BioSIPS wall, floor, and roof panels even surpass conventional SIPS in some strength-testing areas (especially compressive and transverse loading) as well as exhibit superior thermal characteristics — which is important, as thermally-efficient structures go hand-in-hand with decreased energy usage.

Herdt’s accomplishment comes on the heels of a long legacy of research and collaboration with the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). In 1995, she was part of a project that researched and tested GRIDCORE (FPL’s Spaceboard) panels — three-dimensional, molded structural panels comprised of recycled corrugated containers, old newsprint, and kenaf, a plant native to southern Asia. The name “spaceboard” referred to the spaces afforded by the waffle-like design of the GRIDCORE panels, which allowed for increased strength and decreased weight and material usage.

Nearly 20 years later, BioSIPS, like GRIDCORE panels before them, carry on the tradition of turning society’s low-grade waste into high-value products that have proven utility in real-world construction projects. Along with her personal office, Herdt and her team built entire houses with BioSIPS, winning first prize at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon in 2002 and 2005.


Herdt, Schauermann and Hunt await another patent for new methods of creating complex three-dimensional shapes with fiber boards.

Herdt and Schauermann, along with FPL Research General Engineer John Hunt, are awaiting the award of a second patent, Cut-Fold Shape Technology for Engineered Molded Fiber Boards, which relates to a new process of folding fiber boards into three-dimensional shapes to maximize their utility and strength.

In a world of increased environmental awareness, BioSIPS promise to offer designers, engineers, and industry professionals new ways to build strong, energy-efficient structures and provide another avenue for society to make better use of its waste products. Through technologies like these, we will better be able to tackle the construction challenges of tomorrow in an environmentally responsible way.



FPL Helps Recyclable Solar Cells Take Root

The same building blocks nature uses to produce trees are now being used to enhance high-efficiency products such as photovoltaic solar cells.

By producing pilot-scale quantities of cellulosic nanomaterials, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) is collaborating with researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Purdue University to demonstrate the potential of cellulosic nanomaterials as a high performance, environmentally preferable material for the 21st century.

“Using cellulosic nanomaterials as a substrate for photovoltaic cells is just one example of the ability of these materials to provide renewable applications for such high-efficiency products,” said Ted Wegner, Assistant Director of the Forest Products Laboratory.

To date, most solar cells have been built on glass or plastic foundations. Neither is easily recyclable and petroleum-based substrates are not very eco-friendly. Cellulose nanomaterials, on the other hand, are renewable and can be sustainably produced. Use of these wood-based materials also creates a potential use for biomaterials harvested through forest restoration projects aimed at reducing catastrophic wildfires.

“These materials offer a profound opportunity to accelerate forest restoration across America, to protect lives and property from wildfire,” said Michael T. Rains, FPL acting director. “It is estimated that a well-established program in wood-based nanotechnology that creates high-value markets from undervalued woody biomass can help restore 7-12 million forested-acres annually,” said Rains. “This could significantly reduce future fire suppression costs.”

Cellulosic nanomaterials are naturally occurring and possess many outstanding qualities. They have strength properties greater than Kevlar®; piezoelectric properties equivalent to quartz; can be manipulated to produce photonic structures; possess self-assembly properties; and are remarkably uniform in size and shape. Because they are naturally abundant, renewable, and cost-effective, reproduction of cellulosic nanomaterials is expected to reach quantities of millions of tons. This exceeds production projections for many other nanomaterials.

A recent study by Georgia Tech College of Engineering, led by Professor Bernard Kippelen, opens the door for a truly recyclable, sustainable, and renewable solar cell technology.

“The development and performance of organic substrates in solar technology continues to improve, providing engineers with a good indication of future applications,” said Kippelen, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Organic Photonics and Electronics (COPE). “But organic solar cells must be renewable. Otherwise we are simply solving one problem, less dependence on fossil fuels, while creating another: a technology to produce energy from renewable sources that is not disposable at the end of its lifecycle.”