Alternative wood products and processing methods to watch out for

The ACS industry has recently gained a new appreciation for wood and its applications in large timber and solid timber construction. But the material’s relatively lightweight and carbon-storing capabilities are also prompting innovators and scientists to experiment with new uses and manipulations. From readily available commercial products to highly modified materials, ARCHITECT highlights inventive examples of wood products and technologies below.

Courtesy wood skin
Folding Panels by Wood Skin (available via Robin Reigi)

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For building interiors, Milan-based Wood-Skin manufactures Foldable Panels, a multidimensional system of triangulated wood-clad modules designed for vertical and horizontal applications such as walls, ceilings and balustrades. Shipped flat, the 3D panels are structurally supported by an aluminum frame and come with a variety of surface options, including sound-absorbing felt and cork. The company also offers Mesh Sheets, a similar product that offers a greater variety of geometric patterns and surface materials. Subdivided into smaller, self-similar units, mesh sheets sit somewhere between rigid panels and flexible textiles. According to the manufacturer, they allow “the construction of architectural membranes with the same functional properties and the same appearance as ‘macro-tissues’”.

San Francisco-based Smith & Fong (also under the Plyboo brand) offers decorative wall panels called Fractal. The triangular modules in this product are dimensionally flat, but impart visual interest via groove patterns routed in parallel lines. The 24 inch by 24 inch by 34 inch and 3/4 inch thick isosceles triangles are made of Moso bamboo and are available in various colors and line pattern scales. Modules can be oriented to produce optical illusions of depth and movement. The Smith & Fong website includes a Fractal design tool that allows designers to simulate custom patterns in various room configurations.

Requiring a higher level of processing, wood is combined with other materials to create new hybrids. Lignacite, based in Suffolk, UK, manufactures concrete masonry units made from recycled wood chips, other waste, sand and gravel. The company reports that its Carbon Buster block is carbon negative, sequestering more carbon dioxide than its production emits. In addition to the carbon-rich wood chips, the block consists of Carbon8 pellets made from a combination of cement, sand and water to store carbon dioxide. Based on data from a carbon and energy inventory conducted at the University of Bath, the Lignacite masonry unit compares quite favorably with concrete masonry units or typical bricks.

Concrete wood
Courtesy of UBC
Concrete wood

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have also made concrete from wood. Rather than creating elements of masonry, scientists fashioned non-structural panels intended to replace wall panels, countertops or flooring. UBC’s wood comes from local trees ravaged by the mountain pine beetle (MPB). “Cement normally repels organic materials, such as wood,” said Sorin Pasca, MSc student in ecosystem science and management working on the project. “But for some reason the cement sticks to lodgepole pine, and that compatibility is even stronger when the tree has been killed – or you could say, enhanced – by the mountain pine beetle.” Unlike the Lignacite product, MPB Wood Concrete uses wood chips instead of gravel as aggregate. It can therefore be modified using typical carpentry tools, allows nailing without pre-drilling and is water resistant. The material also paves the way for the commercialization of MPB lumber, which sawmill operators have struggled to process conventionally.

At the University of Maryland, engineers have developed a process to make wood 12 times stronger and 10 times stronger. According to Liangbing Hu, a professor of materials science and engineering at the head of the research, the modified material “could be a competitor of steel or even titanium alloys, it is so strong and durable. It is also comparable to carbon fiber, but much cheaper. The method involves the removal of lignin, intercellular glue from the wood and subsequent compression at low temperatures. The resulting material is reduced to 20% of its original thickness, with its fibers now held together by strong hydrogen bonds.

In a UMD press release, Brown University professor Huajian Gao described the technology as “a very promising path to the design of lightweight, high-performance structural materials, with enormous potential for a wide range. applications where high strength, high toughness and superior ballistic resistance are desired. Researchers predict that the process will lead to the replacement of hardwoods in furniture and other applications with modified softwoods which grow faster and are longer. widely available.

Transparent wood
Courtesy of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Transparent wood

Scientists at the Royal KTH Institute of Technology in Stockholm performed similar lignin removal experiments on wood with other results. Rather than seeking strength, they achieved optical transparency. Lignin is also responsible for staining the wood, and when removed, the material turns white. To amplify the substance’s light-transmitting abilities, Wallenberg Wood Science Center professor Lars Berglund and his team impregnated the porous material with a transparent polymer. The result is a thin substrate reminiscent of plexiglass, which the researchers say could be a sustainable alternative to window glazing and the glazed surface of photovoltaic panels. “Transparent wood is a good material for solar cells because it is an inexpensive, readily available and renewable resource,” Berglund said in the statement. “No one had previously considered the possibility of creating larger transparent structures for use as solar cells and in buildings.

But beware
Despite the many impressive innovations in wood materials, precautions remain. We need to improve the monitoring of the timber chain of custody to avoid deforestation, biodiversity loss and other ecological degradation that can result from poor forest management. New hybrids like wood-concrete, especially when made with waste wood fibers, have a compelling case for the durability of materials. Still, care should always be taken when creating composites in which the original ingredients cannot be easily extracted for recycling, especially when the components come from both biological and technical resources, a phenomenon ” Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things ”(North Point Press, 2002) authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart call the“ Frankenstein products ”. For example, lignin is a rich carbon sink, with an energy content equivalent to that of coal, but manipulation of the cell can affect this carbon storage potential.

As part of responsible environmental practices, wood brings new capabilities that promise many positive transformations in the current and future built environment. As the AEC industry becomes increasingly carbon-sensitive, timber construction products could cause a radical change, supplanting many non-renewable and energy-intensive substances with renewable biomass and storing carbon.

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