Think of a material as soft as cotton and one that is hard enough to stop bullets. And now imagine both materials coming from the same source: wood. Both outcomes can be achieved by altering or enhancing the basic building blocks of this renewable resource.
Methods for increasing the density of wood, for example, involve removing part of the lignin – the polymer that binds the cellulose – from the natural wood, and then reinforcing its structure by creating a composite material. The result? An alternative to plastics or metals that can be used for manufacturing buildings, cars and more.
Yet the range of applications of wood is much wider than these two examples suggest, and it is continually expanding through research and innovation, believes Orlando Rojas, an internationally renowned expert in bioproducts and biosystems at Aalto University, Finland. Dr. Rojas, who is from Venezuela and has also worked in Sweden and the U.S., will move to Canada later this year to join the University of British Columbia (UBC). At UBC, he will hold the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Forest Bioproducts and serve as the scientific director of the BioProducts Institute.
“I look forward to continuing and expanding my research on how we can use or engineer materials in new ways. By building on the complex structural design of wood, for example, we can achieve materials that are competitive and even superior to materials that are fossil-fuel-derived,” he says. “But this is not about replacing plastics or fossil fuels, it is about thinking about materials and resources in a different way.”
Dr. Rojas investigates nanomaterials, colloids and surfaces to understand the fundamental principles involved in the design, manufacture and performance of biobased systems. His background has given him an appreciation for working in a cross-disciplinary fashion. “Collaboration between science, business, the arts and engineering, that is the way to go,” he says. “I am looking forward to working with students in Canada in an ecosystem that takes advantage of intelligence, art and design.”
For Dr. Rojas, wood and wood-products have already weathered the test of time. The oldest wooden building is over 1,300 years old, and paper “has been around for 2,000 years for packaging and communication,” he says. “And the environmental race is won by paper, which is recyclable and biodegradable.”
In addition, wood sequesters carbon, making it an important tool for addressing climate change challenges. “Growing trees in a sustainable way has many benefits, for example, for the soil, water and air, as well as human recreation,” says Dr. Rojas. “Climate change is at the heart of our efforts and wood can be a solution in many respects.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.