Wood goes high-tech

07.11.2017 17:12

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Wood

Wood is not just a conventional material, it also has great innovation potential as a high-tech component and raw material for chemistry. This is one of the conclusions of the National Research Programme "Resource Wood" (NRP 66), which is nearing its end after five years of research. The research resulted in 227 publications, more than a dozen CTI projects and three start-ups.

Research participating in NRP 66 have developed new construction methods and analysed forest management in Switzerland. "Analysing a natural resource such as wood requires a global and integrative approach," says Martin Riediker, president of the steering committee of NRP 66. "We were able to gain an overview of the situation and identify numerous promising ways for improving the exploitation of wood. Innovation will play a key role in this context."

The projects of NRP 66 spanned the entire spectrum from basic research to application, however the programme emphasised the importance of knowledge and technology transfer between research, industry and public authorities, notably by conducting 17 workshops on specific topics. The research conducted under NRP 66 resulted in 227 publications, four patents and licences, more than a dozen CTI projects and three start-ups. Embion, Swiss Wood Solutions and Swiss Timber Solutions.

Embion (EPFL, 2016) is developing reactions aimed at transforming cellulose into an intermediate molecule for making chemical products and pharmaceuticals. Organic chemistry has to come to terms with the finite nature of oil and carbon, the fossil resources on which it relies. Plant biomass is a realistic alternative, as several NRP 66 projects have shown. Research teams at EPFL, ETH Zurich and the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) developed new procedures to transform the main components of wood - cellulose and lignin - into aromatic compounds and other intermediate products that are of importance for the chemical industry. Sviatlana Siankevich at EPFL co-founded the start-up Embion in order to turn the newly acquired knowledge into marketable products.

Swiss Wood Solutions (ETH Zurich and EMPA, 2016) are developing veneers for interior decoration and musical instruments. “To have a future, wood has to reinvent itself," Martin Riediker says. "It is viewed as a classy material, but we need to better exploit its innovation potential as a high-tech component." A project team led by Christoph Weder at the Adolphe Merkle Institute in Fribourg inserted cellulose extracted from trees into polymers with the aim of improving their mechanical properties. Working in the opposite direction, Ingo Burgert at ETH Zurich has succeeded in inserting a polymer into the cellular walls of wood to make it more water-repellent and stable for use as a building material; his co-workers have founded the start-up Swiss Wood Solutions aimed at marketing new wood-based materials.

At ETH Zurich, Andrea Frangi has developed ceiling boards made of a wood-concrete compound which are based on beech laminated veneer lumber. He has initiated a collaboration with one of the biggest Swiss construction companies and founded the start-up Swiss Timber Solutions. The company markets a new construction method using frames, columns and beams made of wood.

(Press release)

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