Wisconsin Lab is at Nexus of Innovation for U.S. Forest Service
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undergrowth also represents an appealing alternative to so-called prescribed fires, which are increasingly too costly or impractical for reducing the risks of destructive wildfires on public lands.
“On all national forests, we remove 200,000 to 250,000 acres of low-value, crummy wood each year,” Rains says. “It would be better if we could just get that up to 5 to 7 million acres a year.”
In this way, Rains says the lab is ideally suited to support the Forest Service’s primary mission, which is to keep forests “healthy, sustainable, and resilient” to disturbances that include insects, disease, and wildfires.
“I’m not a logger any more,” Rains says. “I don’t want to chop up big trees to make little things out of them. What I want to do get at this core issue of forests and disturbances.
“Forests and chaparral like you have in Southern California get stressed,” he explains, with the causes ranging from population growth and development to drought and climate change. “When they get stressed, they die. And when they die, they become prime candidates for infernos.”
Making better use of “low-value, crummy wood” serves as an example of how the Forest Service has evolved as a government agency. “When I first started with the Forest Service, we did a lot of clear-cutting,” Rains says. “We were in the lumber business, ‘producing lumber for a growing America.’”
These days, however, the emphasis at the lab has shifted to making better use of woody biomass, developing advanced composite materials, engineering advanced structures, and finding new ways to use trees to produce bio-based fuels and chemicals.
In recent years, the Forest Products Lab also has been emphasizing its research and development in wood products derived from nanotechnology. In 2012, the lab opened a $1.7 million pilot plant to support the commercialization of cellulose-based nanomaterials. Among other things, the plant produces cellulose nanocrystals—rod-like particles that are about 5 nanometers in diameter and 150 to 200 nanometers long—which can be stronger than Kevlar fiber and lighter than fiberglass or carbon fiber. (A human hair is roughly 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter, or 10,000 to 20,000 times thicker than cellulose nano-crystals.)
Concrete reinforced with wood-based nanomaterials is about 24 percent stronger and more flexible than conventional concrete, and requires fewer steel reinforcing bars, Rains says. Wood-based nanomaterials also can be used to make lightweight armor and windshields, clear composites, and “ballistic glass,” with potential applications in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, and medical device industries.
“If we can provide these products [i.e., wood-based nanomaterials] in a cost-efficient way, we’re hoping that some entrepreneurs will take the technology and run with it,” Rains said. “We don’t want the rights to it. We want to turn it over. We want to create some new industries.”