By Hallum Cowell | Deputy Editor
Researchers at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland have devised a new way to make wood into transparent windows. At the moment, transparent wood is produced by soaking it in sodium chloride which removes lignin from the wood which allows light to pass through.
Lignin is a complex organic polymer which forms structural materials in plants and algae. This polymer is especially important in the formation of cell walls, particularly in wood and bark.
The new method instead modifies the lignin by removing the molecules that give the wood its’ colour. By brushing the wood in hydrogen peroxide, best known as disinfectant, then leaving it under an ultraviolet light which aims to simulate natural sunlight. The wood is finally soaked in ethanol to remove any gunk and to clear the pores.
At the end of this process the wood, now transparent, allows 90 percent of light through and is 50 times stronger than transparent wood using the now outdated method.
This research has been part of a movement for a “wooden future”, a return to the simplistic and sustainable basic material source. Making wood as solid and insulating brick or as transparent as glass opens a forest of possibility for humanity’s green future. Some researchers are hopeful that wood could one day replace hydrocarbons, which they argue would have a hugely positive affect on the Earth’s climate.
Liangbing Hu, one of the pioneers of the research, said that “the transparent wood is lighter and stronger than glass. It could be used for load-bearing windows and roofs,” adding that, “it can be potentially used to make a see-through house.” To have wooden windows would be more energy efficient too as it is more insulative that glass.
Most modern structures are constructed from steel and concrete; however, this is proving detrimental to the environment. Steel production makes up roughly three percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions while the production of concrete accounts for five percent. If these materials could be phased out and replaced with wood, it could prove to be revolutionary in the fight for a greener environment.
Wooden skyscrapers are the next challenge, and the race is on for who can build the largest wooden structure, the current record holder is the Mjøsa Tower in Norway which stands at 16-stories. These advancements are thanks to cross-laminated-timber (CLT). CLT is made by gluing together a number of solid-sawn lumber at right angles to increase stability and while first developed in the 1990s has seen a recent surge of interest and attempts to improve the material.
Projects like these wooden windows suggests that the future of human architecture will resemble Tolkien’s Lothlórien rather than modernist concrete jungles. In the future, perhaps our buildings will be environmentally friendly and sustainable, and we will return to the trees that we once climbed down from.