Will Wood Science change the way we build our cities?

Wood Technology

writer icon Danny van de Wijngaard     ISB   |   Sustainability     🕐 01. Aug. 2018

Some people may think that using wood for building and other purposes must have a negative effect on the environment. 

Others might believe that sustainable forestry, for example by replanting trees, is the only durable excuse for building wood products. 

What is often overlooked is the other side of wood production. Today, there is even an entire science dedicated to it. 

At the Luleå University of Technology (LTU), the Division of Wood Science and Engineering in Skellefteå researches the entire wood value chain, from tree to final product.

Wood Science
The LTU Division of Wood Science and Engineering is the Swedish centre for wood technology research and education. They partner with the SP (The Technical Research Institute of Sweden), Träbransch Norr and Wood Center North. 

Their main research is orientated towards processes which make better and cheaper housing with wood. The Swedish wood processing industry is a natural leader in sustainable development. 

Wood City
Wood science has a lot of benefits, not only for business life. It can help increase the quality of life and of a society, by making it renewable, durable, affordable, reliable and sustainable. 

One example is the city of Skellefteå in Northern Sweden. Historically, Skellefteå has a progressive timber industry, being surrounded by Scandinavia's forests. It is also home to the LTU Division of Wood Science and Engineering. Having this level of expertise on their doorstep comes in handy, as the city council wants Skellefteå to be “Wood City”. 

Build with wood

The city council wants to build with wood whenever possible, both visible and invisible. A recent example of this is a proposal of expanding existing concrete buildings with new added wooden floors on top. Wood tends to be lighter than stone, and the result would be an environmental and sustainable solution, where no new concrete or stone buildings have to be built. 

In the Skellefteå magazine dedicated to its “Wood City” ideals, the council states four main reasons to why they want to use wood whenever possible.

The first reason is that building with wood has a minimal environmental impact. An apartment building made of wood has an environmental impact half that of an equivalent concrete building. And its source raw material is renewable. 

Old versus new

A second reason stated in the magazine is that only the forests that have stopped growing are being used for raw materials. The article states that forests that have stopped growing no longer absorb carbon dioxide. Therefore, it is more environmentally friendly to cut these trees down and plant new trees, which do absorb carbon dioxide. 

A third reason given is that combining economical gains with environmental ones is an obvious decision. Thanks to creative solutions, there is no need to compromise on quality in modern timber construction. 

Feel-good solution

A final reason is that living amongst environmental friendly and renewable materials is good for the individual. Many feel that wood is a natural choice of material for creating a cosy and harmonic surrounding. 

The magazine's reasons lay a foundation for why building with wood can be beneficial for societies.

A cornerstone of the Swedish economy

The wood industry is one of Sweden's strongest markets and an important cornerstone of its economy. Sweden's wood industry and its subcontractors are very important for its export revenue, employment and the development of a sustainable society. 

There are about 8000 companies in the wood sector and a turnover of 98 billion SEK. The sector employs 44 000 people directly, plus jobs are created indirectly by subcontractors, consultants, service providers, machine manufacturers and many others.

As wood is a renewable national resource, with large environmental, technical and aesthetic benefits, this can be used to create growth, employment and sustainable development in Sweden.

Sustainable competition
Wood is a biological material where no one piece is similar to the other. During the manufacturing phase, the variability of wood is a great challenge as it requires an individual treatment of each unique piece. Until the 1950's, it was the role of skilled craftsmen to work with the variability of wood.

Subsequently, increased production demands in the wood industry led to a bulk handling of wood. That, in turn, led to a non-optimal usage of the raw material. This led to a lot of the raw material being wasted and the final product being of bulk quality.

Using the whole tree

One of the strengths of the Swedish forestry sector today is that the whole tree is being used in an efficient way to create products that are requested on the international market.

This is due to research and innovative technological appliances which optimise the Swedish wood industry. One example is a project by LTU and Wood Center North, where 3D and X-ray scanning of wooden logs helps with the sorting and sawing process of raw materials. These sort of appliances help to get more and better product out of raw materials.

Global competition

The main products being produced by the sector are solid wood, pulp, paper and energy. With global competition on the rise, the Swedish wood industry can be characterised by its renewable, durable and high-quality wood products.

To ensure its global market position, institutes such as the LTU and Wood Center North continue their search for methods to further a high degree of processing, development of new products, new system solutions and services.

An applied science
The research carried out at LTU, together with its partners, has an applied character. In many respects, it is also anchored in theory, making it interesting to academia as well as to company managers and individuals within the wood industry.

Their goal, by using existing and new technologies, is to give wood the physical, chemical and aesthetic properties that will optimise the end product. 

Properties of the raw materials are linked with property enhancing processes. These bring new qualities and functionality to the raw materials. The development of new green and cost-efficient solutions for further processing and modifying of the wood properties is considered a high priority.

The advantage of wood

Within wood science, it is also important to note the advantages of the wood material in comparison with other construction materials from an environmental perspective.

To get an idea of the projects and research that is going on to reach these goals, one only has to look at their list of completed projects, ongoing projects and prioritised research. Research that looks at refining native low-quality wood species, for example, can benefit a more equal spread, and use, of other trees.

Another area of research explores the development of sensors that register mechanical, moisture and ageing parameters. These insights can potentially enable wood products to become more reliable and durable.

Research to protect against fire

Other spheres of interest, amongst many, are the sawmill process, further refinement processes, wood mechanics and wood infrastructure. Examples of completed projects in co-operation with Wood Center North include a look into the fire-protecting impregnations of wood and fire-retardant properties.

There are projects which take a deeper look into investigating the drilling depth used in wood fitting methods, with an aim to avoid the growth of moulds on these surfaces in long-term use, increasing durability.

Great potential

It is clear that the entire chain of the wood industry, from tree to final product, has great potential to find more durable, affordable, sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions for building, housing and other purposes.

Wood science is an important part of a greener solution because, as it advances, it secures a better environment for future generations, whilst also safeguarding an important Swedish economical cornerstone.

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