University of Maryland (UMD) engineers have found a way to make manufactured wood more than 10 times stronger and tougher than before, creating a natural substance that is stronger than many titanium alloys.

This kind of research shows how material science can save metals, the energy used to produce them and add to the carbon recycling in the planetary carbon system.

Liangbing Hu of UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering and the leader of the team that did the research said, “This could be a competitor to steel or even titanium alloys, it is so strong and durable. It’s also comparable to carbon fiber, but much less expensive.” Hu is an associate professor of materials science and engineering and a member of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute.

Image Credit: University of Maryland. Click image for the largest view.

The team’s work paper has been published in the journal Nature.

Teng Li, the co-leader of the team and Samuel P. Langley Associate Professor of mechanical engineering at UMD’s Clark School said, “It is both strong and tough, which is a combination not usually found in nature. It is as strong as steel, but six times lighter. It takes 10 times more energy to fracture than natural wood. It can even be bent and molded at the beginning of the process.” Li’s team measured the dense wood’s mechanical properties.

The team also tested the new wood material and natural wood by shooting bullet-like projectiles at it. The projectile blew straight through the natural wood. The fully treated wood stopped the projectile partway through.

“Soft woods like pine or balsa, which grow fast and are more environmentally friendly, could replace slower-growing but denser woods like teak in furniture or buildings,” Hu said.

“The paper provides a highly promising route to the design of lightweight, high performance structural materials, with tremendous potential for a broad range of applications where high strength, large toughness and superior ballistic resistance are desired, ” said Huajian Gao, a professor at Brown University who was not involved in the study. “It is particularly exciting to note that the method is versatile for various species of wood and fairly easy to implement.”

Hu added, “This kind of wood could be used in cars, airplanes, buildings – any application where steel is used.”

“The two-step process reported in this paper achieves exceptionally high strength, much beyond what [is] reported in the literature,” said Zhigang Suo, a professor of mechanics and materials at Harvard University, also not involved with the study. “Given the abundance of wood, as well as other cellulose-rich plants, this paper inspires imagination.”

“The most outstanding observation, in my view, is the existence of a limiting concentration of lignin, the glue between wood cells, to maximize the mechanical performance of the densified wood. Too little or too much removal lowers the strength compared to a maximum value achieved at intermediate or partial lignin removal. This reveals the subtle balance between hydrogen bonding and the adhesion imparted by such polyphenolic compounds. Moreover, of outstanding interest, is the fact that that wood densification leads to both, increased strength and toughness, two properties that usually offset each other,” said Orlando J. Rojas, a professor at Aalto University in Finland.

Hu’s research has explored the capacities of wood’s natural nanotechnology. They previously made a range of emerging technologies out of nanocellulose related materials: (1) super clear paper for replacing plastic; (2) photonic paper for improving solar cell efficiency by 30%; (3) a battery and a supercapacitor out of wood; (4) a battery from a leaf; (5) transparent wood for energy efficient buildings; (6) solar water desalination for drinking and specifically filtering out toxic dyes. These wood-based emerging technologies are being commercialized through a UMD spinoff company, Inventwood LLC.

This Maryland team is very impressive, indeed. The breadth and scale with the accompanying success is remarkable and worthy of acclaim.

Wood offers an endlessly replaceable resource for a huge variety of applications. The only concerns are top much heat that might trigger ignition, water that can trigger deterioration and that some things will eat wood, too.


4 Comments so far

  1. Jagdish on February 20, 2018 6:08 PM

    Wood is in short supply and substitutes are already in use. However improvement in quality is a good news.
    There is a need to convert crop stalks to wood substitutes.
    The lignin and other components removed should also be converted to useful materials like fuels or other useful chemicals.

  2. Opha on February 24, 2018 6:31 AM

    We should plants more it woods

  3. dmm on March 14, 2018 2:01 PM

    Softwood (e.g., hybrid tulip poplar) grows quickly and is therefore not in short supply. But the lumber from it isn’t usefully strong.
    Question 1: Can this process convert softwood lumber into “ironwood” lumber without using so much energy that it’s not worth it?
    Question 2: Does the compression increase the strength enough to justify the extra starting thickness? (If the process turns 4-inch pine into 2-inch “oak”, but you could grow 2-inch oak in the time it takes to grow 4-inch pine, then there’s no point.)

  4. dmm on March 14, 2018 2:40 PM

    [warning: I AM NOT A MECHANICAL ENGINEER OR ARCHITECT! Assumptions below might be wrong.]
    Per Diagram: 1/5 the thickness (of original) after treatment; 10x the strength (of original) after treatment.
    But is that ABSOLUTE strength, or RELATIVE strength (strength/thickness)??? I’m thinking it’s probably relative strength. (It’s pretty hard to believe that they can take a 5×5 beam, compress it into a 1×5 beam, and now it can handle 10x the absolute load of the original.) Since load bearing is roughly proportional to thickness, then they’ve DOUBLED the ABSOLUTE load bearing of the piece of lumber. That doesn’t sound as impressive as “10x”, but it might still be useful for building construction. (For example, white oak takes roughly twice as long as poplar to grow.) Definitely useful for cabinet/furniture construction, where thin wood is highly desirable.

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