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Question Your World: Can Wood Be Stronger?

Science is always working on new ways to make our world a better place to live. We've made huge strides in how we resource and use materials to allow a world full of buildings, i-phones, cars, toys, and all the other stuff that we use in our lifetime. The pursuit for better materials is something that many scientists take quite seriously. Recently, some researchers found a way to make something smaller while making it much stronger. How do scientists make stronger materials? 

A famous American poet once said that “we are living in a material world” and that’s so true! We surround ourselves by the built world where different materials matter a lot! That is why some scientists are working on how to make materials lighter and smaller while others are working on how to make things tougher and stronger….and occasionally they stumble upon something very fascinating.  

Recently, some material scientists found a way to make something 10 times lighter while making it twelve times stronger! What is this mystery material? Well, it is wood. To dig into this story, we must first start with lignin, the part of the wood that makes it brown in color but also makes the wood rigid. The curious thing here is that scientists had to find the balance of the right amount to leave in the wood. Removing all the lignin or having too much did not help at all, but like Goldilocks, the right amount did the trick. By removing just the right amount of lignin, these scientists noticed the wood did something very interesting. When they warmed it up to 150°F, the cellulose fibers became so tightly packed that there were no longer any knots, holes, or other imperfections in the wood.

This makes it five times thinner than its original size, but it also tightly compresses all those fibers together to form strong hydrogen bonds! Meaning, that wood ain’t budging! To test the newly treated wood, they shot bullet-like projectiles at the treated wood. These projectiles went straight through normal wood, but this compressed wood was able to stop them. 

Testing will continue in hopes of allowing this compressed wood to eventually make it to market!  The team working on this said this compressed wood could be used for buildings, vehicles, airplanes - anything where you need something light and sturdy! What a cool science story, right? It’s fun to talk about it because it’s such great material! 

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