Forests provide raw materials for applications that go far beyond lumber or paper. The nanofibres and microfibres that make up a tree can be used for all sorts of advanced materials, from medicines, to impenetrable armour coatings, to lightweight windmill turbines.
James Olson, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia, researches advanced materials applications based on forestry, and is excited about what they could mean for the future.
“We know that the world is changing. We know that we need to change the world. We know we need to transition from our current fossil fuel-based economy to a much brighter, greener bio-economy,” says Olson.
Forestry formerly had a reputation for being an unsustainable practice. The reality is that it is now one of the world’s most sustainable industries.
Future forest products are going to take advantage of the diversity of structures found in trees. Nature’s complexity and diversity provides a wide range of intelligent building blocks that could be used to create exciting things.
Olson’s research sits at the intersection of machine design and material science. He designs equipment and processes that take biomass from trees and efficiently breaks it down into the building blocks he wants. He then rebuilds them to make advanced products.
One example is the rearrangement of nanofibres and microfibres to build inexpensive water filters. These filters could help eliminate water-borne diseases.
In the future, fibres could be even further transformed into biomaterials, making use of enzymes from nature to make changes at the molecular level.
Some of these applications could take decades to emerge, but they have the potential to revolutionize the materials used across many industries in unexpected ways.