Researchers at the University of Maryland say they’ve created a new kind of “super wood” that’s stronger, lighter and cheaper than steel. The new material could one day have a major impact on the building industry, they say.
Reporting their findings in the journal Nature, the researchers say that their so-called super wood is actually just ordinary wood that’s been treated using a unique process. It involves removing the woods lignin, which is the substance that gives it its brown color and also makes it rigid. They then compress the wood very tightly under a mild heat. This makes the wood five times thinner than its original state, but also far stronger.
“This new way to treat wood makes it 12 times stronger than natural wood and ten times tougher,” said Liangbing Hu, a Maryland professor and leader of the team who conducted the research. “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 said he believes the super wood could be used to replace steel and carbon fibers, among other uses. The super wood is as strong as steel, but is also six times lighter.
“It takes 10 times more energy to fracture than natural wood,” noted Teng Li, another researchers. “It can even be bent and molded at the beginning of the process.”
Researchers tested the strength of the super wood by shooting bulletlike projectiles at it. The projectiles were only able to get halfway through the treated wood, while they went straight through both sides of the natural wood.
“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. “This kind of wood could be used in cars, airplanes, buildings—any application where steel is used.”