Our Wooden Future- Cool New Technologies: New Scientist

Toyota’s Setsuma roadster (not planned for production)

I thought this article was interesting because it rounded up a variety of new technologies using wood in one place, and also it focuses on European research. There is also a video of a wood laser.

Here are some of the technologies discussed:

CLT (cross laminated timber):

Shah says the skyscrapers are raising awareness, but the real action is in mid-rise buildings. An eight-storey wooden building can be prefabricated off-site and put together in a few days. The material can be grown in sustainably managed forests and, given how many of those there are, it is as if the wood for a single apartment takes just 7 seconds to grow. And while CLT costs a bit more than steel and concrete, it makes construction quicker. Rather than spewing carbon dioxide, it locks carbon away for the lifetime of the building, typically 60 to 70 years. This carbon storage can be a small but useful brake on climate change. According to a 2017 report on greenhouse gas removal by the Royal Society and the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, switching to timber in construction could instantly wipe a billion tonnes off the world’s annual carbon emissions. That is 2.3 per cent of the total – not a huge amount, but in a world where we have to do everything, immediately, it isn’t to be sniffed at. 

To replace petrochemicals:

Wood is also being developed as a source of raw materials to replace the oil-based compounds that dominate today’s chemicals market. This is where wood as we know it starts to disappear, and its integral components come to the fore.

Wood is a complex mixture of organic chemicals. About 40 per cent of it is nanocellulose, bundles of long, strong fibres that are like a natural version of Kevlar, the synthetic material used in bulletproof vests. “It’s a very strong fibre with excellent mechanical properties,” says Lars Berglund, director of the Wallenberg Wood Science Center. A further 30 per cent is lignin, a rich mix of organic compounds not dissimilar to crude oil. The rest is a starch-like substance called hemicellulose. These three components work together to create wood’s material properties, and they can all be extracted and processed into useful – and valuable – compounds.

Of course, the question remains with all these new chemical uses, and as wood is substituted for other building materials, will there be enough trees to go around?

But according to Himlal Baral, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia, there is plenty of land to go around. “Certainly, there is competing demand for land,” he says. “On the other hand, there is a huge amount of degraded and underutilised land available globally, between 1 and 6 billion hectares.” We could use such land, he says, to grow trees to make chemicals, structural materials and biofuels without competing with land needed for food or nature conservation. “Use of degraded and underutilised land for these products and services provides win-win solutions to mitigate climate change, and support rural livelihood and land restoration.”

Berglund also sees little to worry about. “In the Nordic countries, this is absolutely not a problem. If you look at annual growth and how much is harvested, we are not using all our sustainable forests.”

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