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How To Protect Wood As A Living Building Material

How To Protect Wood As A Living Building Material

Scientists developed new ecological methods to conserve wood.

Wood is a great building material, and not only because it’s fashionable and eco-friendly. In fact, it is an easily accessible, extremely sophisticated and high-performance engineered product. But all good things must come to an end, and in the case of wood, the threats are many: wood-decaying organisms, fires, and extreme weather condition. Thus, if you want your wooden house, patio or children playground to last as long as possible, you should take some precautionary measures, like using wood preservatives or modifying the wood structure.

It’s a board? It’s a plain? It’s super wood!

You’re probably yawning. That’s fine. Scientific discoveries in press releases are always about innovative drugs, DNA coding, black holes… Is wood even related to science?! Well, yes. This month is especially booming for wood scientists all over the world. May means Annual Meeting of the International Research Group on Wood Protection, alias IRG. To attend the IRG 46 we have to move over 5000 km south from last year’s location of St. George, Utah, where we met Dr. Van den Bulcke, to Viña del Mar (Chile).

Heavenly seaside, vineyards and Pisco sour welcomed over one hundred wood experts all asking the same question: “How can I protect this wooden structure?”.

Not rocket science

The conference keynote speaker, Dr. Mojgan Nejad, recognized the relatively impopularity of the science of wood. “It’s not rocket science… “, she said, “it’s much more difficult”. If you think about it, we have frequently seen MacGyver building rockets, but he never ever treated wood. Coincidence? I think not… Indeed, without going in too much depth:

  • You have an engineered material, with the high variability of biological matter and composed of extremely complex organic polymers
  • You want to protect it from physical, chemical and biological processes that occur in combination
  • You want to do that using something that modifies the physicochemical, mechanical and somehow biological properties of the initial material
  • Preferably without impacting the super complex and not fully predictable system called “the environment”
  • And at a reasonable price

Not a boring, but a pretty challenging subject, I would say.

Preventing wood decay

The researchers who joined the conference specialized in very different ways to keep wood from decaying. One of them was Dr. Tapin-Lingua, from France. She showed how immunolabelling, a technique generally employed in cell biology, can help assess if the powerful insecticide cypermethrin can effectively penetrate wood, thus protecting it from pests. Carmen Fernandez-Costa developed a new treatment to increase wood durability based on lignin, one of the main components of wood, and laccase, an enzyme secreted by various fungi. Elitza Stoyanova, from Austria, brought us in the world of timber pallet. And surprisingly, Dr de Troya and Maria Jose Barriola presented their first results on how the moon phase may play a role when trees are cut, as it may influence the attack by wood-decaying organisms. Finally, Dr. Lehong Jin demonstrated how young people are fundamental for innovative researches and how simple ideas are not necessarily boring: her student, Sharon Chen, proposed a new and green method to remove copper from treated wood wastes, which are no longer useful and accumulate in landfill.

This technology is based on citric acid. Yes, you understood that right: it is basically a super concentrate of lemon juice, and it binds to copper in wood. That way, you can hit two birds with one stone: on the one hand, you can protect the environment from copper leakage, and on the other hand, you can reuse the extracted copper to protect new timbers.

I think we are all curious to see the future developments of this project. The next IRG meeting will be held in Lisbon next May. In the meanwhile, if you got interested in the subject and would like to know more about the world of wood, please write to me in the comments below!

Chiara Civardi

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