University of Maryland researchers Dr. Liangbing Hu and Dr. Teng Li compare natural wood (light) to their “super wood” (dark).
By Alexandra Marquez
Two University of Maryland professors led research that prompted the invention of a new process used to strengthen natural wood for industrial structural capabilities.
The research was published in the scientific journal “Nature” on Feb. 8 and garnered praise from the international science community.
Dr. Liangbing Hu and Dr. Teng Li are associate professors in this university’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, respectively. Both were deeply involved in the development of a mechanism that densifies and strengthens natural wood. The process removes wood’s lignin and cellulose, soaks it in an aqueous mixture and compresses it under heat, according to the journal article.
Hu said that this new “super wood” is up to 10 times stronger than natural wood and has the potential to be the next widely used structural material, replacing steel, aluminum and other metals.
“We have a process that we can densify the wood by 10x, so you increase the stress by more than 10x,” he said. “That can enable a lot of new applications for this traditional material, for cars, for construction, even for better tables.”
Li described the potential structural and environmental benefits of their strong wood.
“Wood is sustainable and recyclable … the manufacturing of [steels and other metals] has a lot of substantial environmental impact,” he said. Speaking on wood’s availability, Li said, “This is naturally abundant as well, so we think this has a huge promise in the future.”
The researchers unearthed the potential discovery when Hu’s students were investigating ways to make wood transparent, he said.
Alan Murphy, a senior materials science and engineering major who works in Hu’s lab, said that the transparent wood inspired plenty of other research into wood, including that which led to this strong wood.
“The transparent wood prompted a lot of research of how we can transform wood to make it take on different properties,” he said.
After their initial tests, Hu and Li worked with 20 other researchers across the country for two years to invent the material and test its strength.
“When we reached a really high strength, we realized this is something really really … groundbreaking. To prove that, we carried out almost all possible mechanical tests,” Li said. “We tested almost all of the properties you want to know for a structural material — strength, toughness, bending strength in different directions, scratch resistance, hardness.”
Li said the researchers used A. James Clark School of Engineering facilities at this university to conduct a ballistic test.
“We had a high speed steel projectile hit the different wood samples to try to see how much energy they can absorb to explore the potential as body armor or energy absorption materials,” Li said
Murphy said that the potential uses for this strong wood are immense.
“You usually think of wood and you step on it and it splinters, but this one is so strong that it won’t do that,” he said.
Featured photo courtesy of Dr. Liangbing Hu