The timber industry is one of the oldest in the world. But today, wood-based construction is offering some of the most innovative solutions to battling carbon emissions.
One promising development involves the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) — a sturdy, secure, cost-effective and adaptive technique that brings to bear the environmental benefits of wood over rival materials. CLT offers clear advantages over concrete and steel — the two most popular construction materials — in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. While every year concrete contributes around 8% to the world’s CO2 emissions and every tonne of steel produced emits nearly double that amount in carbon dioxide, wood actually binds and stores carbon from the atmosphere.
CLT is already being used in some European countries as construction material, but it has yet to conquer the globe. Currently, the world’s tallest timber building is an 85.4-meter high mixed-use tower in Norway called Mjøstårnet. The soon to-be-tallest CLT office building in North America — a 42-meter high construction in Toronto — is set to be completed this year. Given the eco credentials of CLT, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that one day we will see metropolises full of wooden skyscrapers.
Emerging markets have also begun to explore the possibilities of wooden high-rise construction. China is researching CLT production from different wood species, such as eucalyptus and Japanese larch lumber. The material could become especially promising in Russia, whose land territory is estimated to be nearly 50% covered in forest and which accounts for more than 1/5 of the world’s forest area. Here, the paper, packaging and forestry group Segezha Group is working with the real estate developer Etalon Group to pilot the use of CLT panels for construction projects. The technology could be used in facades and other elements of residential and office buildings. Maybe Toronto’s project will have a sibling in St Petersburg or Moscow in a few years.
Another innovation to combat global warming is transparent wooden windows. These are significantly better at insulation than their traditional glass counterparts and can save energy to boot. The latest methods for producing transparent wood that is lighter and stronger than glass have expanded the horizons for its use, making wood a potential material to build load-bearing windows and roofs.
The examples above show that wood has the power to transform our approach to building construction. Yet wood-based technology can also transform how we fill those spaces. A team of scientists at MIT grew wood-like plant tissue from cells extracted from the leaves of a zinnia plant without using soil or sunlight. While in nature trees need decades to grow, in a lab they can be grown quickly. What is more, it is possible to coax wood tissue to grow into specific shapes — like an armchair, for example. This could mean not only cutting down on time but also waste as one can grow ready-to-use wooden furniture. And unlike growing meat in a lab, this process could become price competitive in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, researchers in Japan are trying to prove that not even the sky is the limit for wood by building the first-ever wooden satellite that can cut space junk. The project is a joint effort of Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University, and is scheduled to launch in 2023. When it comes to applications in space, wood has a variety of advantages to traditional materials. For example, it does not block electromagnetic waves, weighs less, and — what is important for the problem of space junk — is biodegradable.
The environmental advantages of wood, along with that of responsible forestry, have long been self-evident. Introducing industrial-grade quality advantages to this material can expand its sales horizons to a whole new scale. The prospects for wood are bright — and you can take that to the moon and back. Literally.