Wood is one of the most ubiquitous and adaptable materials on the planet. Beyond buildings, packing material, and furniture, Forest Service scientists are discovering that the prospects for using even the smallest components of wood are nearly boundless. Nanotechnology research in forest products uses nano-scale (i.e., particles hundreds of times smaller than the width of a strand of human hair) methodologies to understand wood properties and develop applications for wood material. For example, when added to other packaging material, cellulose nanomaterials (a.k.a. nanocellulose) can enhance the strength of material itself and extend the shelf life of perishable items, along with other unique properties.
Much of the Forest Service’s research on nanotechnology in forest products is conducted at the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin. There engineers, wood anatomists, and chemists work with partners all over the U.S. to conduct cutting-edge research in the manufacturing, characterization, and application of cellulose nanomaterials.
The Forest Service undertakes this work because:
- Cellulose nanomaterials can be produced from woody biomass or underutilized small-diameter trees that would otherwise be considered waste. Converting this wood to value-added chemicals and fibers can provide economic incentives to forest operations to remove excess fuel loads, thereby limiting forest fire risks and keeping forests healthy.
- Nanocellulose offers wide ranging, exciting prospects for making buildings and infrastructure more structurally sound and environmentally friendly. For example, adding cellulose nanocrystal to concrete can make it stronger and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
- New wood markets can make forest management more attractive and lucrative for landowners, providing incentives to maintain forests for future generations.
- Understanding properties and applications for cellulose nanomaterials helps to develop demand for this new forest product. The Forest Service formed P3Nano, a public-private partnership with the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities to collaborate with experts from industry and universities on nanotechnology application research. The Forest Service also participates in ISO standards development and works with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in support of a safe workplace in facilities producing products with cellulose nanomaterials.
- A bridge with cellulose nanocrystal-enhanced concrete was recently constructed over the Moffett Creek in Siskiyou County California. The cellulose nanocrystal-enhanced concrete was developed by a team of experts from the Forest Products Lab, Oregon State University, and a concrete mixer. Adding cellulose nanocrystal to concrete can improve the strength of the concrete and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
- A team from the Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Georgia Tech discovered that the addition of cellulose nanomaterials can allow a 7% weight reduction in fiber glass materials, often used as car parts. This light-weight material can improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.
- A team of scientists from the Michigan State University School of Packaging and the Forest Service have demonstrated that the addition of a biodegradable biopolymer, cellulose nanocrystal in polylactic acid (PLA), can extend the storage life of fruits in PLA packages. This offers an attractive alternative to the petroleum-based products used for food storage and packing material.