Creative Learning: Forensic Botany Class Goes from Science to Sculpture

In the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Department of Botany’s Forensic Botany class, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) research botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft gives his students full creative license when it comes to their final projects.

“They could even do an interpretive dance.” said Wiedenhoeft, “Although they’d have to interpret it for me, since I’m a botanist.”

Undergraduate student Jennifer Baccam appreciated the freedom of the assignment and chose an interesting medium to demonstrate what she had learned in Wiedenhoeft’s class: sculpture.

Jennifer Baccam’s sculpture of FPL’s Arthur Koehler.

Baccam is majoring in plant biology and when she heard about Wiedenhoeft’s forensic botany class, her curiosity was piqued.

“I love botany and have done lots of field work,” said Baccam. “This class seemed like an interesting way to meet the requirement of taking a laboratory class.”

In giving thought to her final project, Baccam wanted to know how forensic botany came about. When she began to research the topic, Baccam discovered it all began with a scientist named Arthur Koehler from none other than the Forest Products Laboratory.

Koehler was the chief wood technologist at FPL in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and a wooden ladder was nearly the only evidence at the scene of the crime. Koehler was asked to participate in the investigation and eventually testified in the trial. Based partly on Koehler’s testimony, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the crime, and subsequently executed.

At the time, no one had heard of an expert witness in wood. In fact, one of Hauptmann’s lawyers stated the following in objection to a question posed to Koehler: “We say that there is no such animal known among men as an expert on wood; that it is not a science that has been recognized by the courts; that it is not in a class with handwriting experts or with ballistic experts. But this is no science, this is merely a man who has had a lot of experience in examining trees, who knows the barks on trees and a few things like that.”

Koehler of course balked at this statement, and it was stricken from the record as the court deemed Koehler was indeed “qualified as an expert upon the subject matter.”

As Baccam read Koehler’s testimony, she found it plenty apparent that he was confident in his skills and abilities as a wood expert, and he stood behind what he had learned in examining the ladder as evidence.

Forensic Botany student Jennifer Baccam.

“Koehler came across as a larger-than-life personality,” said Baccam. This observation is apparent in her sculpture, in which Koehler’s bust is looming over the other aspects of the case that are represented, including the ladder itself.

Baccam’s curiosity about forensic botany continues to lead her down a new path, as she is set to begin working in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research with Wiedenhoeft soon, and will complete her senior thesis at FPL beginning in the fall.

“I’m lucky to have Alex as my mentor,” says Baccam. “Since the beginning of the Forensic Botany course he has helped me further realize that research is truly my passion. My perspective of my future is much less uncertain now.”

To learn more about Wiedenheoft’s forensic botany course, which he co-teaches with UW Professor Sara Hotchkiss, see this feature story from UW-Madison.

Wood Water Filter Design Wins Regional Competition FPL Researcher Mentors Winning Student Team

A team of engineering students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) took first place in a recent American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) competition with a bit of guidance from FPL Research Chemist Mandla Tshabalala.

Winning water filter design using ponderosa pine bark as filter media.

Winning water filter design using ponderosa pine bark as filter media.

The contest, part of the annual ASCE Great Lakes Student Conference, challenged students from 18 regional universities to design and build a water filter for a hypothetical water stream contaminated with dissolved copper, molybdenum, iron, and phosphate. Filters were scored on cost, sustainability, and performance.

Students were encouraged to pursue filter materials that were easily available to consumers or waste products that could be given a second life.  In researching their options, the team (composed of Jack Richeson, Adam Dircz, and Brian LaQua) came across Tshabalala’s work on using wood in water filters, an arena he has been exploring for more than a decade.

FPL Research Chemist Mandla Tshabalala

FPL Research Chemist Mandla Tshabalala

Tshabalala met with the students and discussed the possibilities of wood for water filtration. He helped them consider various options for wood material, provided his research publications for background information, and showed them water filters he had designed, all the while encouraging the team to come up with a unique design and method of their own.

The students chose ponderosa pine bark as one of the filter media because it is readily available, cheap, and sustainable, and has been shown to remove copper and iron. Bark is a commonly available byproduct of timber processing mills; one FPL study estimates that the United States generates around 2.2 million metric tons of bark residues annually.

Along with pine bark, the winning filter employed sand and steel slag, a waste product of the steel industry. The design won first place by removing 83 percent of the contamination.

Filtered water samples.

Filtered water samples.

The UW-Madison Filter Team (l to r): Brian LaQua, Jack Richeson, and Adam Dircz.

The UW-Madison Filter Team (l to r): Brian LaQua, Jack Richeson, and Adam Dircz.

Fun with Future Foresters

forestryclubStudents from the University of Wisconsin Madison and Stevens Point Forestry Clubs toured the Forest Products Laboratory this afternoon to learn about the research and utilization aspects of sustainable forestry.

FPL engineer Bob Ross spent the afternoon with the group, giving a bit of a history lesson on the Lab, followed by a look at the state-of-the-art Centennial Research Facility.

Creating Flexible Electronics Using Nanocellulose

Not long ago it would have been hard to imagine throngs of people walking around with tiny computers in their pockets, able to communicate with someone across the globe instantly just by tapping on a screen.

It can be equally as hard to imagine where these amazing technologies are headed next.  Ron Sabo, a research materials engineer at FPL, and his partners at the University of Wisconsin (UW) have a few ideas, and they’re looking to wood to make them happen. Wood at the nano-scale, that is.

“So far, most electronics are rigid and have glass coverings,” Sabo says. “There is interest in advancing electronics by making them flexible, and we’re finding nanocellulose could help make that happen.”

Nanocellulose is simply wood broken down to the incredibly tiny nanoscale. (A nanometer is approximately one-millionth the thickness of an American dime.) At the nanoscale, wood is incredibly strong, lightweight, and transparent, all attributes that could enhance electronics.

Flexible electronics present a wide range of possible applications, including displays, smart cards, solar cells, radio frequency tags, medical implants, and wearable computers. Research and development have been ongoing in this arena, but there have been some challenges along the way.

“The materials used to create these products must not only perform as intended,” explains Sabo, “but also hold up to harsh production processes that can include drastic changes in temperature and being washed in acid.”

High-speed flexible electronics are created by building a circuit on a very thin silicone membrane and then transferring it to a flexible substrate. Most research has used plastic as the substrate, but plastics can have drawbacks; namely, the large degree to which they expand and contract with changes in temperature.

Sabo, along with UW researchers Jung-Hun Seo and Zhenqiang Ma, are studying nanocellulose composites substrates as an alternative to plastic, and were recently able to successfully demonstrate the technology.

“We found there are several benefits to using nanocellulose composites in flexible electronics,” said Sabo.  “When heated, cellulose does not expand as dramatically as plastics do, and it is also a renewable resource which is important considering how prolific electronic devices have become.”

According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, in the United States alone, 129 million mobile devices were disposed of in 2009, and less than 12 million of those were recycled.  Electronic waste is a serious environmental concern that the use of biodegradable materials such as cellulose nanofibers can help address.

Sabo’s research is ongoing as the team works to refine the technology. They have improved upon their earliest work by coating the nanocellulose composite with a thin layer of epoxy on each side. The epoxy provided protection and created a smoother surface, improving the transfer of the circuit.

Further research will focus on continuing to improve the composite material, as well as testing to ensure the products developed will perform well under real-world conditions.

So are we looking at a future where televisions are high-tech wallpaper and tablet computers roll up and fit in your back pocket? Such developments are not out of reach, and wood could help us get there.

“Using cellulose nanofibers as a sustainable component for high-speed flexible electronics is extremely promising,” says Sabo.

Research into Reuse – Benefits multiply when art and science combine efforts

Christine Lee, a California-based artist and designer, first met FPL engineer John Hunt when she was an artist-in-residence in the University of Wisconsin Art Department’s wood program. Since then, their partnership has proven that great things can happen when art meets science.

Lee’s art often aims to reveal the hidden potential in discarded materials. While at the University of Wisconsin, she wanted to take the idea of reuse one step further, creating a work of art from waste materials and then using the waste from her art project to create yet another product.

Lee was familiar with FPL’s work, and Hunt seemed a natural fit for partnering, as much of his research revolves around using waste material as well. Working with material ranging from recycled cardboard to cow manure, there is certainly an element of creativity to his research, and Hunt was interested in seeing what an engineer and an artist could come up with together.

“It was great to work with Christine and get out of the ‘forest products’ mentality,” says Hunt. “She came to the project with a completely different viewpoint, and had fresh ideas about how things look, fit together, or might be used. It challenged me to think differently and opened up a whole new realm of possibility for the product we created.”

Lee began with a large supply of scrap wood that would usually be turned into mulch. Using specific woodworking machines, Lee used the scrap wood to create multiples of a building block inspired by her childhood experience with Lincoln Logs. She also collected the sawdust generated from her project, and separated it according to species.

The individual blocks are made of both solid wood and sawdust elements and feature interlocking notches. Lee fit the blocks together to create a large-scale suspended sculpture that is now on permanent display at the Madison Children’s Museum. The installation also includes blocks for children to create their own structures, and is titled “A Product’s By-product, A By-product’s Product.”

As for the collected sawdust, Hunt used the waste from Lee’s project to create a series of test panels. Made from sawdust and recycled paper pulp fibers, Hunt produced the panels using wet-forming and heat-pressing processes without the use of adhesives.

Hunt went on to evaluate the physical and mechanical properties of the binder-less boards, and he and Lee presented the findings of their collaboration at the Building Materials Reuse Association’s DECON 11 conference.

“It’s great that we were able to present a successful collaboration that worked across the disciplines of art, design, and engineering,” says Lee. “This feels like the right way to go in the future. If design students are introduced, early in their schooling, to the idea of science and technology behind design, that mix of perspectives greatly opens the potential of what they can achieve.”

Lee and Hunt plan on continuing their collaboration and further investigating uses for the panels they’ve developed. Potential uses include cabinetry and furniture products.

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Written by Rebecca M. Wallace, FPL Public Affairs Specialist