Episode [] MSP71 [] Super Wood: Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Episode [] MSP71 [] Super Wood: Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

The idea of wooden cars, homes, planes and skyscrapers used to be a Fred Flinstone fantasy. Now, with huge leaps in material technology, could wood be the miracle material of our future?


Produced by Richard Bradbury for BFM89.

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Episode Transcript


These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.


Have we been missing the wood for the trees? Or barking up the wrong tree? Rather than go on with these torturous and pointless idioms all morning, let’s cut to the chase. 


It’s long been claimed that trees and forests can play an enormous role in mitigating climate change, but could they be the solution to everything from lightweight batteries and portable lasers as well? Here to admit he’d never thought about it until this week is MSP’s Matt Armitage. 


Matt, before we start, where’s Jeff?

·      He’s spending a few pleasant weeks at one of Kulturpop’s mountain re-education centres. 

·      We came to the conclusion that his attitude needed a little adjustment.

·      And because I’m nothing if not benign, I’ve agreed to let him repay the costs with his servitude once his reorientation is complete. 


That’s very generous of you…

·      Some people have said in the past that I behave like a dictator or a cult leader.

·      But after my followers go to visit them and demonstrate how devastating, I mean powerful, my love can be, they usually change their minds. 


Which neatly brings us to wood.

·      I like the balance of fear and logic in your reasoning. 

·      When we talk about wood, at least on technology shows, it’s usually in a kind of historical context.

·      Wood was one of the mainstays of our pre-petroleum world.

·      To early human society wood meant shelter. It meant the ability to cook and keep warm. 

·      It meant weapons and hunting tools. 

·      Boats and ships. Wagons. Wheels. 

·      When you look at a country like Malaysia, which is still thickly forested, it’s easy to forget that the insatiable hunger for wood stripped much of Europe of its mega-forests.


So, is that the aim for today? To argue that to save our future from climate disaster we should return to agrarian societies with donkeys pulling wooden carts? Have you been watching too much Walking Dead again?

·      You’re entirely wrong and remarkably right at the same time. 

·      Not about the Walking Dead thing, although this season is very very good, against all expectations.

·      No. We’re talking about skyscrapers made of wood.

·      Cars made of wood. Windows made of wood.


Hang on. A wooden window is basically a wall, isn’t it?

·      If you could let me speak without the interruptions, I might get to explain myself and make some sense to the good people out there. 

·      When we think about the next generation of materials, we’re often talking about nanotech, carbon based.

·      All of these incredible, lab curated materials that will enable us to make twisty building dozens of kilometres high.


I think that’s probably an exaggeration. You’d be tossed around like a canoe in a storm.

·      Yes. It’s a ridiculous idea. 

·      But those are the kind of expectations we seem to have. 

·      We think every new discovery is going to somehow the break the laws of physics and allow faster than light travel on a BMX.


You’d need some kind of helmet for that…

·      If only to stop your hair, and let’s face it, your entire face from going up in flames. 


Not to mention the ET in your basket achieving orbit velocity…

·      That would have made for a very different movie.

·      ET wouldn’t have had to phone home, Eliot could have cycled him out to one of the ice moons of Jupiter.


What does any of this have to do with wood?

·      I’m glad you asked.

·      Because a lot of people might be surprised to find out that wood can do quite a few of the things we’ve just discussed.

·      We don’t look at wood as being a hi-tech product. We look at is as the material of yesteryear.

·      It grows. Someone comes along and fells it. It’s machined and cured and sent out as planks or beams or chips.


Wood has a hidden techie side?

·      It might surprise a lot of people, but wood is at the centre of a new high tech solution that could help us to wean us off our dependence on concrete and steel.


If we’re happy with our concrete jungles, why bother?

·      As we increasingly move into the era of mega-cities, the benefits and weaknesses of our dependence on concrete especially are being laid bare.

·      For starters, the vast quantities of sand that are being dug up to feed the concrete monster.

·      The huge amounts of energy required to make it. Up to 5% of our greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to come from concrete.

·      Another 3% from steel production. 

·      So, on the one hand, concrete is a cheap and incredibly versatile building material.

·      But as we’re increasingly finding there are drawbacks to the concrete metropolis.


Like heat and drainage?

·       Yes. The buildings consume all this energy to build.

·       And then more energy to light and heat or cool.

·       Concrete surfaces on the ground prevent rainwater from draining away.

·       Its ironic, the materials we’re using to build these cities may be contributing to the problems that materials and the cities they’re based on aren’t able to cope with.


And the answer is to go back to log cabins?

·      Depending on where you go in the world, wood is still a major component of residential building.

·      In the US timber frame homes are still the norm. 

·      But what we’re talking about is the next generation. Superwood.


Do we have superwood?

·      We do. A material called Cross Laminated Timber (CLT). 

·      It isn’t even that new. We’ve been using it since the 1990s.

·      It uses layers of wood glued together. 

·      The grain of each sheet is placed at right angles to the sheets above and below it.

·      So its properties become regular and predictable – a weakness in normal wood.

·      And it gives it a similar strength to steel while being much much lighter. 


Wouldn’t it be a fire hazard?

·      According to a New Scientist piece that has given me a lot of the material for today’s show, it’s remarkably fire retardant. 

·      The article likens making buildings with CLT to Jenga. 

·      You lie these timber sheets on top of each other.


Whenever I’ve played Jenga, I wouldn’t describe the results as stable or liveable…

·      No. But the results are a lot stronger than you might imagine. 

·      Vancouver already has an 18 storey wooden tower block. 

·      Another 18 storey building is set for completion in Mjesa Norway, anytime now. And is slightly taller than the Vancouver building.

·      And a 300m 80 storey tower is planned for London’s Brutalist masterpiece, the Barbican. 


Will it change the way our cities look?

·      When you start talking about making it in wood, you kind of imagine the world will end up looking like a Swedish sauna, inside and out. 

·      A lot of the current wooden buildings are pretty stealthy in their look and feel. 

·      There are quite a lot of them dotted around the world but you might never know by looking at them.

·      Many of them tend to be traditionally clad. And plastered and painted on the inside.

·      In the same way that you don’t see much raw concrete on the inside or outside of buildings. 


But makers do think we’ll embrace the look and feel of wood?

·      Over time. As the buildings become more commonplace.

·      People spend a fortune to have wood floors laid. 

·      Once we get over the preconceptions we have about wood, that it shouldn’t behave in certain ways.

·      Once we get past that, we should see the timbers being more celebrated.


We’ll get into the environmental aspect after the break. For now let’s stick with things like cost and performance.

·      Cost wise it is more expensive.

·      But it’s much faster to build with.

·      That 18 storey tower in Norway was only started last April and it’s almost finished today.

·      But the biggest potential for this new technology is in smaller buildings, up to 8 storeys which can potentially be constructed in a matter of days. 

·      Because each storey can be pre-fabricated offsite and lifted into place with a crane and joined.

·      And as we know with similar pre-fab structures in China, you can build in all your access for water and electricity, so it’s a very plug and play scenario.


But it’s still more expensive…

·      On the face of it.

·      But as we said, those emissions are a hidden cost of concrete and steel.

·      CLT buildings on the other hand will lock away carbon for the duration of their life. 

·      So as a cost per unit, yes, they may be more expensive.

·      As a cost to society, they may turn out to be much cheaper. 

·      And, with the sky-rocketing cost of sand around the world, concrete construction costs look as though they’re set on an upward trajectory.


When we come back, we’ll have a look at the environmental impact of a neo-wooden era and look at what look like some crazy developments in wood-based materials science.




Before the break we were talking about a miraculous new construction material called wood. In this part of the show we’re going to look at some of its more magical properties like turning into glass.


That’s right. Glass. But first. We’re going to talk about some of the practicalities.


This technology is being billed as a climate saver, but surely it’s not eradicating other materials entirely?

·      No, of course not. 

·      Let’s stick with construction for a minute.

·      Buildings will still need concrete foundations, for example.

·      So we’re still looking at concrete and steel for that.

·      But the actual structures will be much lighter. 

·      Which in turn means that most buildings will require much shallower foundations, so you’re even saving on that, too.


But these products aren’t carbon neutral, are they?

·      No. The best solution is not to need them.

·      For example, generally speaking, environmentally it’s better to make use of existing buildings until the end of their natural lifespan.

·      Even if you’re building the world’s most green building, generally speaking, if you rip an old concrete lump down in order to put it up, that’s still wasteful.

·      In the same way it’s often better to keep an old car with shady emissions levels, or to buy second hand, than to buy a new car.

·      Because of the energy expenditure that goes into making that new product.


So we still have to account for the energy cost of creating a material like Cross Laminated Timber?

·      Absolutely. Not to mention the chemical signature of the glue holding the different layers together.

·      But look at the way the world is expanding, especially developing countries.

·      If they can make that switch to more carbon neutral construction of all kinds of materials, then we will all be better off in the long run.


One thing that’s bothering me is space. If we make this kind of pivot to a natural resource like wood. There are a lot of questions. How do we make sure it’s sustainable? That we’re not contributing to deforestation? And is there simply enough space?

·      Obviously those are all big issues. 

·      Yes, sustainability is key. We have to identify types of trees that have the properties we need and are relatively fast-growing. 

·      You don’t want to start chopping down 1000s of year old giant redwoods because you fancy an office extension off the kitchen.

·      Deforestation is something that will have to be handled nation by nation. 

·      In theory, it’s a movement that would lead to reforestation, although obviously these would be managed forests rather than wild. 

·      And yes, there are concerns about space.

·      That growers could prioritise land to grow bio-fuels or sustainable construction materials rather than food crops.


So, there are all sorts of distortions that could take place?

·      Theoretically. But there is also a lot of land that is ripe for reforesting. 

·      NS quotes Himlal Baral at Indonesia’s Centre of International Forestry Research as saying that there is somewhere between 1 and 6bn hectares of land that could be used every year.

·      This is land that might be either degraded, brownfield, logged or otherwise under-utilised every ear.


What would 1bn hectares of land look like? 

·      I wasn’t able to double check this figure – but It would look a lot like the whole of the continental USA. You could turn the whole of the US and Canada into new forest for this industry.

·      Add Russia, China, Brazil and maybe some chunks of Australia to that if you want to get closer to the 6bn. 

·      On top of which, countries that already operate sustainable forest industries, such as the Scandi countries, are often considerably below capacity. 

·      So there is room for growth even within current production levels.


Is it realistic to look at wood as a replacement for fossil fuels?

·      Fossil fuels are partly wood anyway.

·      Certainly it takes a lot less time to regrow trees than it does to make more oil or gas from those trees. 

·      So it’s far more renewable.

·      What will really win out is how far the technology can go.


Yes. We made some quite large claims at the start of the show. Wooden windows I believe.

·      It’s not as far fetched as it sounds. 

·      Have you visited the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre in Stockholm lately?


[Rich answers]

·      So you may have missed out on the breakthrough they made a few years ago in removing the pigment from wood.

·      Which makes it transparent. I know that sounds weird.

·      And it’s not as far away from that comment you made about a window made of wood is a wall.

·      Because it would still have the insulating properties of wood. 

·      Great for cold climates, which lose heat through glass.

·      And great for climate controlled buildings, which lose cool air through the glass. 

·      Although we would probably have to replace those in case of emergency break glass boxes with chainsaws rather than hammers.


And you keep mentioning the petrochemical industry. Would wood address that or wouldn’t it?

·       Ok, folks. We can all go home now. I’ve managed to get Rich to repeat my terribly mangled sentence. 

·       Show’s over. I’m so sorry to have dragged you all into this.

·       [Pause]

·       Ok, you’re still here. 

·       First of all, wood and its byproducts can already be processed into biomass for burning and also into a biofuel that is creating interest in the aviation industry.


But we’re talking about something a little deeper, right? We’ve been burning wood for millennia. That’s not news.

·      No. What’s more important – possibly – is wood’s potential to replace petrochemical byproducts.

·      Wood consists of three main chemical components. 

·      You’ve got lignin, at around 30%, which has many of the same properties as crude oil and explains why wood makes a great biofuel.

·      Around 40% is nanocellulose and the rest is a starchy material called hemicellulose.


So lignin is used as the biofuel?

·      Primarlly. And there are already some pilot schemes for wood refineries that would separate out all these different chemicals, rather than simply treating them as waste products from other industries using wood.

·      Because of their similarity to oil, lignin can be used as the base for resins and adhesives amongst a host of other things.


Oh, so when we mentioned Cross Laminated Timber needing to be glued, the glue could be made from wood, too?

·      You see. The circle starts to close. 

·      As for the naocellulose. That’s the material that gives wood its strength.

·      The fibres are Kevlar strong.  

·      It’s already being used in large quantities in electronics, packaging, cosmetics.

·      And its use looks set to rise.


I think we mentioned cars earlier…

·      Yes, carmakers are exploring whether nanocellulose could replace glass fibres in bodywork.

·      It’s light, strong, flexible. 

·      We’ve already seen BMW concepts using nanofabrics as bodywork.

·      This could be the next step. Our next generation cars could be a return to those old-fashioned wood panelled station wagons. 

·      In fact, Toyota has a wooden concept roadster it plans to debut next year.


That leaves us with starchy old hemicellulose…

·      This is the tough nut to crack. Literally.

·      But it’s the one with so much potential to reward the environment.

·      A whole host of companies, many of them in the Nordic region, are trying very hard to turn wood into plastic. 

·      A company called Sulapac is already using hemicellulose to manufacture single use plastic containers.

·      But we’re still a way off the holy grail; wooden single use water bottles.


And these products would be fully biodegradable?

·      A lot of the current generation of cellulose and other degradable plastic replacements require industrial composting or other techniques to fully recycle them.

·      Wood based plastics would fully degrade in the ground in about a year. 


These still aren’t the most out there ideas for wood, are they?

·      No. There’s the material for making aircraft. 

·      Densified wood is another breakthrough. 

·      A fifth the thickness, 12 times stronger. Incredibly light. 

·      It’s being evaluated as a replacement for steel in machinery with moving parts.

·      Even that’s still vanilla. Can you imagine wooden batteries?


Is that where we close the circle again?

·      Yup. One of the chief impediments to electric flight is the weight of the batteries.

·      What if the plane was made of densified wood, so it was lighter than traditional planes.

·      And then further weight was saved with lightweight wooden batteries. 

·      Traditional batteries are pretty dense and heavy. 

·      In wooden batteries, the components are placed into the pores in the wood.

·      It sounds like steam punk fiction but scientists at the University of Maryland are actually working on it. 

·      Along with the kookiest item of all…


The wooden laser?

·      Yes! This one really needs some effort to get your head around. 

·      It comes from our friends at Wallenberg and they admit it’s a fairly rubbish laser.

·      But it is cheap and renewable. 

·      I genuinely don’t understand how it works and they also admit they haven’t really thought up a use for it, beyond having fairly useless laser pointers embedded in your chairs and tables.

·      They did it mostly to prove they could and to show how versatile wood can truly be.


What do you think the likelihood is that wood could become this enormous, environmentally conscious manufacturing material?

·      I think it has huge potential.

·      We’re becoming less cost conscious when it comes to replacing plastics and other materials sourced from petrochemicals.

·      Concrete could be next. 

·      And for a country like Malaysia, where natural resources are a large part of the economy, there’s great potential for growth in a sustainable and manageable way that is also highly profitable.

·      It goes back to that old saying; if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound.

·      Now we know the answer is a definitive yes. And that sound is Ke-ching!