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.

Substituting for Fossil Fuels: The Bio-Chemical Side of Wood Products

From the Forest2Market Article

As far as I have been able to ascertain, N-95 masks are made from propylene, which is a currently a byproduct of oil or gas. I’m not a psychologist, but it must be difficult to feel as angry at the “fossil fuel industry” as many are (or claim to be), and yet be dependent on so many of their products. It’s interesting that people can blame workers involved in production (often with blue-collar jobs) for the bad parts (environmental negatives), and enjoy the good parts (the products) seemingly without moral qualms.

Oil and gas folks are probably just as befuddled by this as forest industry folks were during the Timber Wars by folks against logging. Of course, I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to question practices and regulations of any industry, but, at least the rhetoric, sometimes goes beyond that to something that may feel like “industry hate.”

Anyway, if we want to keep fossil fuels in the ground, as some do, we would have to come up with substitutes for uses in addition to electricity and liquid or gas fuels. These folks in British Columbia are apparently doing that with western red cedar, and folks in Nova Scotia are doing research on spruce-fir pulp.

In early December, reporter Doris de Guzman of Forest Industry News did a nice roundup of EU efforts in using lignin products.

Lignin is expected to play a significant role as a new chemical feedstock particularly in the formation of supramolecular materials and aromatic chemicals. Lignin is a complex plant-derived macromolecule found in the cell walls of almost all dry plants. It makes up 20-30% of the composition of wood.

According to a European Commission (EC) report “Top emerging bio-based Products, their properties and industrial applications” published by Germany-based Ecologic Institute on June 2018, lignin – among the most relevant large-volume biomass components – was found to generate the highest number of innovative products together with terpenes and urban wastes. Its natural abundance and global availability represent the main drivers for the persistent attempts at its exploitation beyond its actual relevant role as a bioenergy source, although its chemical versatility and uniqueness as a source of aromatic building blocks also play a role.

Innovative products derived from lignin range from fundamental chemical building blocks such as BTX aromatics to material for advanced applications in technical fields like construction engineering, where for instance both carbon fibres and thermoset resins play a major role but are currently not available from renewable sources.

As with our chart yesterday, we would need to consider all the environmental impacts of substitutions, such as these..

Environmental impacts depend on the energy demand for cracking the lignin as well as on the catalysts and solvents needed in the production process. Bio-derived methoxylated alkylphenols are promising alternatives to traditional alkylphenols as their toxicity is significantly lower. Furthermore, methoxylated alkylphenols from lignin can possess unsaturated alkyl chain (i.e. eugenol). The unsaturation is also proposed to benefit the biodegradability of the alkylphenol, as unsaturated compounds often degrade faster in various environments than their saturated counterparts.

There’s a great deal of chemistry in the article that for me required frequent side-trips to look up words. I’d guess we don’t hear much about these new uses as they tend to be using products from pulp and paper plants, and we don’t have many of those in the Western US.

North Versus Hanson

Experts Frustrated by Stalled Efforts to Counter Megafires

“Use every damn tool you’ve got,” he said. “If we could have beavers on crack out there I’d be donating to that process — anything that will speed up the pace and scale of this thing.”

Dr. Malcolm North

Samo-Samo for CASPO

No Threatened Status for the California Spotted Owl. Current protections remain. The article is a good read, with some of the “usual suspects”.

Ancient Wood Art

Who knows what kind of history this former tree has seen? What caused the wood to grow like that? I love finding art in nature.




@larryharrellfotoware on Instagram

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.”

Sierra Nevada Logging Examples

Back in 2012, I worked my last season with the Forest Service, on the Amador Ranger District of the Eldorado National Forest. In particular, I led the crew in marking the cut trees in this overcrowded unit.

The above picture shows the partially logged unit, as well as the sizes of logs thinned.

This part of the same unit shows a finished portion, and two other log landings.

Here is a link to the larger view.,-120.3284245,1019a,35y,90h/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

There are also other completed cutting units in the area, which I worked in. Most of those were also cut in 2018, six years after they were marked. The existing plantations were cut back in the 80’s. At least one new goshawk nest was found, and the cutting unit was dropped.

A Picture is Worth at Least 1000 Words

“Natural Forest Regeneration”? (in the Eldorado National Forest.)

Validated Science versus Unproven Scientific Hypothesis – Which One Should We Choose?

In a 6/13/18 article, David Atkins provides a critique of the assumptions behind the Law et al article titled: “Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests” and shows how hypothetical science can and has been used, without any caveat, to provide some groups with slogans that meet their messaging needs instead of waiting for validation of the hypothesis and thereby considering the holistic needs of the world.


The noble goal of Law et. al. is to determine the “effectiveness of forest strategies to mitigate climate change”. They state that their methodology “should integrate observations and mechanistic ecosystem process models with future climate, CO2, disturbances from fire, and management.”

A) The generally (ignoring any debate over the size of the percentage increase) UNCONTESTED points regarding locking up more carbon in the Law et. al. article are as follows:
1) Reforestation on appropriate sites – ‘Potential 5% improvement in carbon storage by 2100’
2) Afforestation on appropriate sites – ‘Potential 1.4% improvement in carbon storage by 2100′

B) The CONTESTED points regarding locking up 17% more carbon by 2100 in the Law et. al. article are as follows:
1) Lengthened harvest cycles on private lands
2) Restricting harvest on public lands

C) Atkins, at the 2018 International Mass Timber Conference protested by Oregon Wild, notes that: “Oregon Wild (OW) is advocating that storing more carbon in forests is better than using wood in buildings as a strategy to mitigate climate change.” OW’s first reference from Law et. al. states: “Increasing forest carbon on public lands reduced emissions compared with storage in wood products” (see Law et. al. abstract). Another reference quoted by OW from Law et. al. goes so far as to claim that: “Recent analysis suggests substitution benefits of using wood versus more fossil fuel-intensive materials have been overestimated by at least an order of magnitude.”

II) Law et. al. CAVEATS ignored by OW

A) They clearly acknowledge that their conclusions are based on computer simulations (modeling various scenarios using a specific set of assumptions subject to debate by other scientists).

B) In some instances, they use words like “probably”, “likely” and “appears” when describing some assumptions and outcomes rather than blindly declaring certainty.


Knowing that the modeling used in the Law et. al. study involves significant assumptions about each of the extremely complex components and their interactions, Atkins proceeds to investigate the assumptions which were used to integrate said models with the limited variables mentioned and shows how they overestimate the carbon cost of using wood, underestimate the carbon cost of storing carbon on the stump and underestimate the carbon cost of substituting non-renewable resources for wood. This allows Oregon Wild to tout unproven statements as quoted in item “I-C” above and treat them as fact and justification for policy changes instead of as an interesting but unproven hypothesis that needs to be validated in order to complete the scientific process.

Quotes from Atkins Critique:

A) Wood Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) Versus Non-renewable substitutes.
1) “The calculation used to justify doubling forest rotations assumes no leakage. Leakage is a carbon accounting term referring to the potential that if you delay cutting trees in one area, others might be cut somewhere else to replace the gap in wood production, reducing the supposed carbon benefit.”
2) “It assumes a 50-year half-life for buildings instead of the minimum 75 years the ASTM standard calls for, which reduces the researchers’ estimate of the carbon stored in buildings.”
3) “It assumes a decline of substitution benefits, which other LCA scientists consider as permanent.”
4) “analysis chooses to account for a form of fossil fuel leakage, but chooses not to model any wood harvest leakage.”
5) “A report published by the Athena Institute in 2004, looked at actual building demolition over a three-plus-year period in St. Paul, Minn. It indicated 51 percent of the buildings were older than 75 years. Only 2 percent were demolished in the first 25 years and only 12 percent in the first 50 years.”
6) “The Law paper assumes that the life of buildings will get shorter in the future rather than longer. In reality, architects and engineers are advocating the principle of designing and building for longer time spans – with eventual deconstruction and reuse of materials rather than disposal. Mass timber buildings substantially enhance this capacity. There are Chinese Pagoda temples made from wood that are 800 to 1,300 years old. Norwegian churches are over 800 years old. I visited at cathedral in Scotland with a roof truss system from the 1400s. Buildings made of wood can last for many centuries. If we follow the principle of designing and building for the long run, the carbon can be stored for hundreds of years.”
7) “The OSU scientists assumed wood energy production is for electricity production only. However, the most common energy systems in the wood products manufacturing sector are combined heat and power (CHP) or straight heat energy production (drying lumber or heat for processing energy) where the efficiency is often two to three times as great and thus provides much larger fossil fuel offsets than the modeling allows.”
8) “The peer reviewers did not include an LCA expert.”
9) The Dean of the OSU College of Forestry was asked how he reconciles the differences between two Doctorate faculty members when the LCA Specialist (who is also the director of CORRIM which is a non-profit that conducts and manages research on the environmental impacts of production, use, and disposal of forest products). The Dean’s answer was “It isn’t the role of the dean to resolve these differences, … Researchers often explore extremes of a subject on purpose, to help define the edges of our understanding … It is important to look at the whole array of research results around a subject rather than using those of a single study or publication as a conclusion to a field of study.”
10) Alan Organschi, a practicing architect, a professor at Yale stated his thought process as “There is a huge net carbon benefit [from using wood] and enormous variability in the specific calculations of substitution benefits … a ton of wood (which is half carbon) goes a lot farther than a ton of concrete, which releases significant amounts of carbon during a building’s construction”. He then paraphrased a NASA climate scientistfrom the late 1980’s who said ‘Quit using high fossil fuel materials and start using materials that sink carbon, that should be the principle for our decisions.’
11) The European Union, in 2017, based on “current literature”, called “for changes to almost double the mitigation effects by EU forests through Climate Smart Forestry (CSF). … It is derived from a more holistic and effective approach than one based solely on the goals of storing carbon in forest ecosystems”
12) Various CORRIM members stated:
a) “Law et al. does not meet the minimum elements of a Life Cycle Assessment: system boundary, inventory analysis, impact assessment and interpretation. All four are required by the international standards (ISO 14040 and 14044); therefore, Law et al. does not qualify as an LCA.”
b) “What little is shared in the article regarding inputs to the simulation model ignores the latest developments in wood life cycle assessment and sustainable building design, rendering the results at best inaccurate and most likely incorrect.
c) “The PNAS paper, which asserts that growing our PNW forests indefinitely would reduce the global carbon footprint, ignores that at best there would 100 percent leakage to other areas with lower productivity … which will result in 2 to 3.5 times more acres harvested for the same amount of building materials. Alternatively, all those buildings will be built from materials with a higher carbon footprint, so the substitution impact of using fossil-intensive products in place of renewable low carbon would result in >100 percent leakage.”
d) More on leakage: “In 2001, seven years after implementation, Jack Ward Thomas, one of the architects of the plan and former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said: “The drop in the cut in the Pacific Northwest was essentially replaced by imports from Canada, Scandinavia and Chile … but we haven’t reduced our per-capita consumption of wood. We have only shifted the source.”
e) “Bruce Lippke, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and former executive director of CORRIM said, “The substitution benefits of wood in place of steel or concrete are immediate, permanent and cumulative.””

B) Risks Resulting from High Densities of Standing Timber
1) “The paper underestimates the amount of wildfire in the past and chose not to model increases in the amount of fire in the future driven by climate change.”
2) “The authors chose to treat the largest fire in their 25-year calibration period, the Biscuit Fire (2003), as an anomaly. Yet 2017 provided a similar number of acres burned. … the model also significantly underestimated five of the six other larger fire years ”
3) “The paper also assumed no increase in fires in the future
4) Atkins comments/quotes support what some of us here on the NCFP blog have been saying for years regarding storing more timber on the stump. There is certainty that a highly significant increase in carbon loss to fire, insects and disease will result from increased stand densities as a result of storing more carbon on the stump on federal lands. Well documented, validated and fundamental plant physiology and fire science can only lead us to that conclusion. Increases in drought caused by global warming will only increase the stress on already stressed, overly dense forests and thereby further decrease their viability/health by decreasing the availability of already limited resources such as access to minerals, moisture and sunlight while providing closer proximity between trees to ease the ability and rate of spread of fire, insects and disease between adjacent trees.

In their conclusion, Law et. al. state that“GHG reduction must happen quickly to avoid surpassing a 2°C increase in temperature since preindustrial times.” This emphasis leads them to focus on strategies which, IMHO, will only exacerbate the long-term problem.
→ For perspective, consider the “Failed Prognostications of Climate Alarm

New Tree Technologies: Chips and Capacitors

A couple of new tree technology items..

From Quebec here.

The town of Rosemère, Que., is opting for a more environmentally-friendly way of keeping roads from becoming slippery due to ice, snow and freezing rain — it’s using wood chips.

The town, located just northwest of Laval, is testing out wood chips as a replacement for salt or gravel on the roads.

Rosemère Mayor Eric Westram said they are ditching the “old, conventional way” in favour or something more eco-friendly and more efficient.

“All this salt and all those materials end up in the river,” said Westram. “So if you want to be conscientious of the environment, you have to look at other alternatives.”

He said it all began when a public works employee attended a conference on snow clearing and came back with the idea to try out the wood chips on a couple of key streets that are known in the area for becoming icy.

Westram said the wood chips are completely biodegradable and that they can help vehicles maintain traction in –30 C, compared with salt which he says works up to –15 C.

​”Wood is as natural as it comes,” he told CBC. “This is definitely the thing of the future.” The plan to use wood chips is beginning as a pilot project on a few key streets. Since the wood chips don’t disintegrate, the city has to treat the streets much less often.

Aside.. I’ve noticed in my relatively steep driveway that if I rake pine needles along one side, it keeps ice sheets from forming and makes them easier to crack, quicker to melt and safer to walk on.

This one’s more obscure but also interesting from New Scientist here..

Northern China has a smoky problem caused by autumn leaves, but now there could be a fix: simply turn them into devices that store energy.

Many roads in this part of China are lined with trees of the genus Paulownia, sometimes called phoenix trees. Despite the government’s disapproval, many locals burn the fallen leaves, worsening the country’s notorious air pollution. In Beijing alone, about 2 million tonnes of leaves and other plant waste are burned every year.

Now, Hongfang Ma at the Qilu University of Technology in Jinan and her colleagues have figured out how to turn phoenix tree leaves into organic capacitors. These could be used like batteries to store energy, potentially avoiding some of that air pollution into the bargain.

The process of making organic capacitors does release a little carbon dioxide, but not nearly as much as would be emitted if you let the same quantity of material burn or decay, says Caroline Burgess Clifford at Penn State University. “Any type of use of any waste material is a good thing.”