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Bridging the Gap: Concrete may provide new market opportunities for forest materials

WASHINGTON, DC—Northern California is soon to be home to a bridge constructed using nanocellulose-infused concrete. The Moffett Creek Bridge, located in Siskiyou County, will serve as the latest site to demonstrate how adding cellulose nanomaterials to concrete enhances its performance.

Researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory, in partnership with Purdue University and Oregon State University, have found that adding these miniscule wood particles increases the strength of the finished product.

Crews lay concrete.
Nanocellulose-infused concrete looks and acts like traditional concrete, but has improved properties. Photo courtesy Michael Goergen, vice president at U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.

“Adding cellulose nanocrystals at levels of just 0.05 percent by weight or less increases the strength of concrete by 20 percent or more,” said the lab’s assistant director, Alan Rudie. “Producers can either make higher strength concrete or maintain the usual strength but at a lower cost by reducing the cement needed in the mixture.”

Adding these materials could have significant impacts on the environment as well. Manufacturing cement is an energy intensive process that constitutes about four percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The cement and concrete industries are actively working to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. Cellulose nanomaterials are among the most promising options.

Amazingly, there are even more benefits from a forestry perspective. Forest managers are working to restore forests and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire and other threats. These management activities largely target low value wood with few markets.

“Removing low value wood is expensive, so finding markets is critical to making better progress on the 70 million acres of National Forest land at the highest risk for catastrophic fires,” Rudie said. “Products made with CN could provide one of the most important answers to keeping our forests as forests and ensuring their health and sustainability.”

Precast concrete beams are currently being manufactured by Knife River Corporation in Oregon using nanocellulose produced at Forest Products Laboratory. These beams will be installed in the Moffett Creek Bridge in November.

Other test sites for nanocellulose concrete include a sidewalk at the lab and a parking lot at the headquarters for the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities.