Study develops technique to create solid and “moldable” wood materials

Reshaping a piece of wood can conjure up images of wood carving or carving, but more recent activity has attempted to break down the cellular structures of wood to create more durable and long-lasting materials.

The recent ‘moldable wood’ study featured on the cover of the October 22, 2021 issue of Science.

A new study published in Science details a new innovative process which breaks down the cell walls of wood and allows the material to be reconstituted via a “water-shock” treatment.

The study, led by a research team from the University of Maryland and which included Yuan Yao, assistant professor of industrial ecology and sustainable systems at YSE, began by breaking down the lignin component of wood – the cell walls of wood that give it strength. The broken fibers were then closed by water evaporation, then the wood was “re-inflated” in “a process of rapid hydraulic shock which selectively opens the vessels”.

The resulting material has a wrinkled cell wall structure that allows the material to be molded into desired shapes like 3D molded wood – with a constitution six times stronger than the original wood material and comparable to others. lightweight materials, such as aluminum alloys.

The strong mechanical property, according to the research team, could “expand the potential of wood as a structural material, with lower environmental impact for buildings and transportation applications.”

Yao, a faculty member at the Center for Industrial Ecology, performed a critical life cycle assessment (LCA) to understand the environmental impacts of 3D molded wood versus aluminum alloy. LCA is an essential tool used in industrial ecology to quantify the environmental implications of a product throughout its life cycle.

Yao also used LCA to determine if the process could be optimized from a sustainability perspective. She identified that the biggest contributor to the overall environmental impact would be the energy consumption of wood processing, which could be significantly reduced by shortening processing time.

Since more studies need to be done to determine the impact of large-scale applications, Yao says, future research will examine the potential impact of this technology and its large-scale applications on forests.

“We are thinking about where the wood comes from, how we can use this process to support sustainable forest management practices, and how this process would affect the current supply and demand for wood,” Yao said.


Yuan Yao (Photo: Cloé Poisson)

Yao’s research examines the environmental and economic impacts of emerging technologies and industrial processes, integrating interdisciplinary approaches from the fields of industrial ecology, sustainable engineering, and systems modeling to develop techniques that foster approaches and more sustainable engineering policies. She led a groundbreaking study earlier this year that created a high-quality bioplastic from wood by-products that is recyclable, biodegradable, and has a lower environmental lifecycle impact.

Earlier this month, Yao was named the recipient of the International Society for Industrial Ecology Laudise Medal, awarded for outstanding achievement in industrial ecology by a researcher under the age of 36.

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