...  although [wood] has been used for millennia to build everything from furniture to homes and larger structures, untreated wood is rarely as strong as metals used in construction. Researchers have long tried to enhance its strength, especially by compressing and “densifying” it, says Liangbing Hu, a materials scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. But densified wood tends to weaken and spring back toward its original size and shape, especially in humid conditions.

Now, Hu and his colleagues say they have come up with a better way to densify wood, which they report in the February 7 Nature. Their simple, two-step process starts with boiling wood in a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sodium sulfite (Na2SO3), a chemical treatment similar to the first step in creating the wood pulp used to make paper. This partially removes lignin and hemicellulose (natural polymers that help stiffen a plant’s cell walls)—but it largely leaves the wood’s cellulose (another natural polymer) intact, Hu says.

The second step is almost as simple as the first: Compressing the treated wood until its cell walls collapse, then maintaining that compression as it is gently heated. The pressure and heat encourage the formation of chemical bonds between large numbers of hydrogen atoms and neighboring atoms in adjacent nanofibers of cellulose, greatly strengthening the material.

The results are impressive. The team’s compressed wood is three times as dense as the untreated substance, Hu says, adding that its resistance to being ripped apart is increased more than 10-fold. It also can become about 50 times more resistant to compression and almost 20 times as stiff. The densified wood is also substantially harder, more scratch-resistant and more impact-resistant. It can be molded into almost any shape. Perhaps most importantly, the densified wood is also moisture-resistant: In lab tests, compressed samples exposed to extreme humidity for more than five days swelled less than 10 percent—and in subsequent tests, Hu says, a simple coat of paint eliminated that swelling entirely.

A five-layer, plywoodlike sandwich of densified wood stopped simulated bullets fired into the material—a result Hu and his colleagues suggest could lead to low-cost armor. The material does not protect quite as well as a Kevlar sheet of the same thickness—but it only costs about 5 percent as much, he notes.

The team’s results “appear to open the door to a new class of lightweight materials,” says Ping Liu, a materials chemist at the University of California, San Diego, unaffiliated with the Nature study.


Processing bulk natural wood into a high-performance structural material

Jianwei Song, Chaoji Chen, Shuze Zhu, Mingwei Zhu, Jiaqi Dai, Upamanyu Ray, Yiju Li, Yudi Kuang, Yongfeng Li, Nelson Quispe, Yonggang Yao, Amy Gong, Ulrich H. Leiste, Hugh A. Bruck, J. Y. Zhu, Azhar Vellore, Heng Li, Marilyn L. Minus, Zheng Jia, Ashlie Martini, Teng Li & Liangbing H

Nature volume 554, pages 224–228 (08 February 2018)

Abstract:  Synthetic structural materials with exceptional mechanical performance suffer from either large weight and adverse environmental impact (for example, steels and alloys) or complex manufacturing processes and thus high cost (for example, polymer-based and biomimetic composites). Natural wood is a low-cost and abundant material and has been used for millennia as a structural material for building and furniture construction9. However, the mechanical performance of natural wood (its strength and toughness) is unsatisfactory for many advanced engineering structures and applications. Pre-treatment with steam, heat, ammonia or cold rolling followed by densification has led to the enhanced mechanical performance of natural wood. However, the existing methods result in incomplete densification and lack dimensional stability, particularly in response to humid environments, and wood treated in these ways can expand and weaken. Here we report a simple and effective strategy to transform bulk natural wood directly into a high-performance structural material with a more than tenfold increase in strength, toughness and ballistic resistance and with greater dimensional stability. Our two-step process involves the partial removal of lignin and hemicellulose from the natural wood via a boiling process in an aqueous mixture of NaOH and Na2SO3 followed by hot-pressing, leading to the total collapse of cell walls and the complete densification of the natural wood with highly aligned cellulose nanofibres. This strategy is shown to be universally effective for various species of wood. Our processed wood has a specific strength higher than that of most structural metals and alloys, making it a low-cost, high-performance, lightweight alternative.