Wood goes high-tech


Wood could potentially replace petrol in chemistry and concrete in construction, according to studies conducted under the National Research Programme "Resource Wood". They show how precious chemical compounds can be extracted from wood, how its usability as a building material can be improved, and how forest management can be optimsed.

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.

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."

Replacing petrol with wood

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.

The projects of NRP 66 spanned the entire spectrum from basic research to application. Michael Studer from Bern University of Applied Sciences succeeded in improving fermentation processes of beech wood for the production of ethanol, a commonly used fuel. The construction of a pilot site in the canton of Jura is under discussion with an industry partner and a wood supplier. François Maréchal at EPFL developed an IT tool to establish the best layout for a bio-refinery. Relying on a numerical model, Tilman Schildhauer from the Paul Scherrer Institute was able to optimise the production of biogas.

A traditional yet innovative material

"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." 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. Working in the opposite direction, 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.

Heiko Thoemen from Bern University of Applied Sciences improved manufacturing processes for layered boards in which a plastic foam is enclosed by two wooden panels, commonly used components of prefabricated flat-pack furniture. At the University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Architecture in Fribourg, Daia Zwicky has developed a lightweight wood-concrete by partially replacing sand with sawdust.

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 results have been impressive: intensive knowledge transfer with more than 200 external professionals, the creation of three start-ups, and numerous declarations of intent to continue collaborating in the areas of research and development.

One of the key recommendations of NRP 66 is to establish a "Biorefinery competence centre" and a "Technical centre for Swiss wood innovation". The programme also calls for the development of a Swiss bioeconomy strategy in which wood takes its deserved place.

"Exploiting forests makes sense in terms of ecology and biodiversity as it can stabilise CO2 emissions for decades and diminish the greenhouse effect," Martin Riediker says. "We have a very emotional, even intimate, relationship with wood. It is the material of which old furniture and the chalets of our childhood are made. But wood can do even more. There is a lot of know-how in the areas of construction and innovation in Switzerland. The people involved in these sectors need to collaborate closely to maximise the benefits of this natural and renewable resource."


Thomas Bernhard
Head of knowledge and technology transfer NRP 66
IC Infraconsult
Phone: +41 76 343 37 75
Phone: +41 31 359 24 24 / 24 34
E-mail: thomas.bernhard@infraconsult.ch

Ergänzende Informationen und Links:

Resource Wood (NRP 66)

In collaboration with industry partners, forest owners and public authorities, the National Research Programme "Resource Wood" (NRP 66) aimed to generate scientific knowledge and practical solutions to optimise the exploitation and use of wood in Switzerland. The results and recommendations of NRP 66 were published in four summary reports in November 2017. The Swiss National Science Foundation conducted the programme based on a mandate from the Federal Council.

Innovation and start-ups

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 (EPFL, 2016) is developing reactions aimed at transforming cellulose into an intermediate molecule for making chemical products and pharmaceuticals. www.embiontech.com
  • Swiss Wood Solutions (ETH Zurich and EMPA, 2016) are developing veneers for interior decoration and musical instruments. swisswoodsolutions.ch
  • Swiss Timber Solutions (ETH Zurich, 2016) are marketing a new construction method using frames, columns and beams made of wood. swisstimbersolutions.com

More wood in construction and industry 4.0

Light in weight, easy to process, and with good thermal and mechanical properties - wood has always played an important role in construction. But it also has its drawbacks: it is breakable and bends in humid conditions. As a natural material, its properties can be variable.

In addition to their research into novel wooden structures, the scientists of NRP 66 endeavoured to devise new strategies for protecting wood. Alke Fink from the Adolphe Merkle institute examined whether impregnating wood with nanoparticles could protect it against mould. Empa's Tanja Zimmerman studied the use of cellulose nanofibrils as a protective coating. She collaborated with the multinational company Weidmann, which is based in Rapperswil and specialises in natural fibres. "We have been able to develop new applications based on cellulose microfibres, a sub-structure of the cellulose found in trees," says Tobias Wolfinger, technical director at Weidmann. "One of the projects is being supported by the CTI, its industrial implementation is imminent. By interacting with scientists from NRP 66, we have learnt to develop new applications, such as a sponge capable of absorbing petrol from the water surface."

At ETH Zurich, Andrea Frangi has developed ceiling boards made of a wood-concrete compound which, like the beams, 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. These innovations will make it easier to use wood from deciduous trees, particularly beech, which is available in abundance in Switzerland.

René Steiger from Empa made life-size models of load-bearing structures and analysed how resistant they are to oscillations similar to those caused by an earthquake. Matthias Kohler from ETH Zurich used robots to craft complex structures with the aid of ultra-fast bonding glue; the digitisation and automation of industry 4.0 makes such manufacturing possible.

Professionalising the management of forests

The studies on the economic value chain for wood conducted by NRP 66 have confirmed in figures what the sector has suspected for a long time: the wood economy in Switzerland is very fragmented. "Many forests belong to small landowners, private persons or municipalities that often don’t exploit them professionally, or at all," says Martin Riediker, president of the Steering Committee of NRP 66. "In the end, the exploitation is barely profitable."

The work of Milad Zarin-Nejadan at the University of Neuchâtel and of Roland Olschewski at WSL suggests that forest exploitation needs to become more professional and focused, and that distribution channels must be consolidated. "According to our analysis, it's not up to the policy-makers to intervene, but rather the actors," Riediker explains. "Buyers, in particular, should be able to see more clearly the innovation potential and added value offered by wood. It is important to bring research and development closer together."

The researchers found a gap in wood usage, between its uses as building material and as combustible fuel for heating. To make the most of this resource, it is essential that we use wood of all kinds more efficiently before burning it. The work done in NRP 66 shows a strong potential with regard to the development of new high-performance materials, the production of fibres and the production of chemical and pharmaceutical products. Used efficiently, wood has a largely positive environmental impact, shows a global analysis of this subject conducted by Stéphanie Hellweg from ETH Zurich.