Researchers at the University of Maryland intent on using the power of wood for nontraditional applications have achieved their goal.
As explained in Knowable Magazine, materials scientist Liangbing Hu led a group that worked on developing transparent wood, which tests showed was about 10 times tougher than glass and around three times stronger than transparent plastics such as Plexiglass.
Knowable Magazine noted that transparent wood could “soon find uses in super-strong screens for smartphones; in soft, glowing light fixtures; and even as structural features, such as color-changing windows.”
Creating transparent wood is a complicated process in which scientists modify the cells into a sturdy material by removing lignin, which is the glue that holds cell bundles together and provides wood’s earthy brown hues.
In short, natural wood is soaked in a bleaching solution before being immersed in epoxy resin, which then “bends light to a similar degree to the cell walls [and] renders the wood transparent.” Hu explained that the cells “create a sturdy honeycomb structure, and the tiny wood fibers are stronger than the best carbon fibers.”
Per Knowable Magazine, the material is both thin enough and strong enough to be a viable alternative to “products made from thin, easily shattered cuts of plastic or glass, such as display screens.” For example, the French company Woodoo has used a similar process to create wood screens for products such as car dashboards and advertising billboards.
Transparent wood has also been found to be a better insulator than glass, so it can be used to help buildings retain or keep out heat. The ability to hold or repel heat would be useful for energy-efficient buildings and makes transparent wood a better temperature control than traditional glass.
Researchers said it will take time to add transparent wood to mainstream markets, with embracing greener production schemes and scaling up manufacturing the two necessary steps to do so.
“When you’re trying to achieve sustainability, you don’t only want to match the properties of fossil-based materials,” said Céline Montanari, a materials scientist at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden. “As a scientist, I want to surpass this.”
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