Science Friday: Turning Wood Into Plastic

Our discussion about the Bootleg Fire reminded me of the mountain pine beetle outbreak in the 80’s and the desire to use some of that material. The idea then was a waferboard plant in Chiloquin, Oregon.  But the FS couldn’t guarantee supply and it was a large investment and no one stepped up.  Forty years later, people in various parts of the West still don’t have markets for what I call FRR (forest restoration residuals).  4FRI has a guaranteed supply, and still has trouble finding purchasers.  Finding products that will use this material and businesses that will pencil out has been a bit of a Holy Grail.

Here’s another possible use for fuel treatment and forest residuals..

To create the slurry mixture, the researchers used a wood powder — a processing residue usually discarded as waste in lumber mills — and deconstructed the loose, porous structure of the powder with a biodegradable and recyclable deep eutectic solvent (DES). The resulting mixture, which features nanoscale entanglement and hydrogen bonding between the regenerated lignin and cellulose micro/nanofibrils, has a high solid content and high viscosity, which can be casted and rolled without breaking.

Yao then led a comprehensive life cycle assessment to test the environmental impacts of the bioplastic against commons plastics. Sheets of the bioplastic were buried in soil, fracturing after two weeks and completely degrading after three months; additionally, researchers say the bioplastic can be broken back down into the slurry by mechanical stirring, which also allows for the DES to be recovered and reused.

“That, to me, is what really makes this plastic good: It can all be recycled or biodegraded,” says Yao. “We’ve minimized all of the materials and the waste going into nature.”

The bioplastic has numerous applications, says Liangbing Hu, a professor at the Center for Materials Innovation at the University of Maryland and co-author of the paper. It can be molded into a film that can be used in plastic bags and packaging — one of the major uses of plastic and causes of waste production. Hu also says that because the bioplastic can be molded into different shapes, it has potential for use in automobile manufacturing, as well.

One area the research team continues to investigate is the potential impact on forests if the manufacturing of this bioplastic is scaled up. While the process currently uses wood byproducts in manufacturing, the researchers say they are keenly aware that large-scale production could require usage of massive amounts of wood, which could have far-reaching implications on forests, land management, ecosystems and climate change, to name a few.

Yao says the research team has already begun working with a forest ecologist to create forest simulation models, linking the growth cycle of forests with the manufacturing process. She also sees an opportunity to collaborate with people who work in forest-related fields at YSE — an uncommon convenience.

Perhaps this could be simplified by establishing a third-party certification system for residuals; then you wouldn’t have to speculate as to “far-reaching implications.”

As to automobile manufacturing, there’s a 2016 paper on wood in car manufacturing. And history wise , during WWII there’s wood gas for cars. In 1924, Upson and Eriksen of the FS Forest Products Laboratory wrote an article in SAE Transactions on wood for automobile bodies.

3 thoughts on “Science Friday: Turning Wood Into Plastic”

  1. “ Perhaps this could be simplified by establishing a third-party certification system for residuals; then you wouldn’t have to speculate as to “far-reaching implications.”

    We are working on this.

  2. Instead of science, politics determines how public lands are managed: the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming are prime examples. Ponderosa pine is extremely high in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) yet it is routinely replanted because the timber lobby owns the Black Hills National Forest.

    Portable pyrolysis is already happening in log landings for the production of biochar, a far more environment friendly timber byproduct.


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