Research at Georgia Tech Heralds a New Future for Forestry and the Environment
By Chris Butler
New innovations at Georgia Tech promise greater future demand for trees and, in turn, increase the forestry industry’s ability to create new jobs. This research should also produce more capacity to capture carbon in working forests. Researchers are, for example, seeking alternatives to the plastics that we use to package our groceries, which are not environmentally friendly.
Georgia Tech Professor and Associate Director of the Renewable Bioproducts Institute Chris Luettgen said researchers are examining ways to increase demand for forest products. One example involves taking a bilayer of bio-based material — nanochitin sourced from sea shells, lobster shells, crab shells or shrimp shells — and combining that with a layer of nanocellulose from trees. This bilayer film can be produced with a very good oxygen barrier, creating the potential for replacing fossil-based plastic bags.
“You can apply this to blow-molded bottles and films and grocery bags and any kind of film-form- ing plastic that is typically polyethylene-based. You can make it out of something bio-based instead,” Luettgen said.
He added that these innovations require people to invest more in forests.
“I think what it does is, it increases demand for cellulose. We know that trees are the best source of cellulose,” Luettgen said. “If you think about economics from a macro-scale, if demand increases because we’ve created new markets for the tree, then ... you see this fairly elastic market [where] people will need to grow more and potentially increase their margins because the demand is higher.”
All of this, Luettgen went on to say, will result in people growing more trees to help offset carbon emissions. “If we grew more trees, then we would have less of an issue when it comes to carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, which has led to the fear of global warming. If you grew more trees, you would have less of a temperature rise from the CO2 blanket,” Luettgen said.
“Those are favorable things that should really allow the average consumer to appreciate our forests more. It will also bode well for the future of forest growth because of these additional applications.”
Expand the Sustainability of the Forestry Industry
Georgia Tech researchers are also looking at ways to convert wood-derived lignin into value-added products that would replace fossil-fuel-based polymer precursors. Lignin is now largely burned to produce steam at pulping operations.
Carson Meredith, executive director at Georgia Tech’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute, said lignin is a major component of wood that is removed during pulping to make paper and other products. Lignin often gets burned in the pulp mill itself to supply energy. Meredith said there is interest in looking at other types of products that could result from lignin.
“There have been many efforts to convert lignin into molecules that have other uses with higher value. You can make plastics out of it or other types of specialty chemicals,” Meredith said. “What [Georgia Tech researcher] Yulin Ding has been working on is looking at making fuel-grade bio-oils from lignin that could be used in contexts outside of the pulp mill, such as transportation fuels.”
And how does that help the forestry industry?
“It expands the range of high-value products that you can obtain from wood,” Meredith said. “That is what is exciting about it. It helps to expand the sustainability of the forestry industry and makes it a more profitable and stable industry moving into the future. Especially in the future when we need to replace petroleum-derived fuels and plastics with those from renewable sources.”
The carbon from lignin helps to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Keeping that CO2 in forests helps the earth and its forests tremendously, Meredith said. “Managed industrial forests are great places to keep CO2 in trees rather than the atmosphere, where it raises the temperature of the Earth. Anything we can do to make a new product from a tree is going to increase reliance on commercial forests, and that is good for the earth.”
Chemically Modifying Wood Boards
Georgia Tech Associate Professor Mark Losego spoke of another innovation — a low-pressure gas phase treatment for chemically modifying wood boards.
“This treatment is still in the early stages of development, but we have demonstrated that it has potential advantages over current technology like pressure-treated lumber. While pressure-treated wood prevents rot, it doesn’t hold up against water uptake or swelling,” Losego said. “It doesn’t have dimensional stability, so it basically warps and cracks over long-term outdoor use. In preliminary testing, our chemically treated lumber, which ties up the hydrophilic chemical groups inside the wood structure, shows much better resistance to water uptake and swelling.”
While wood-plastic composites are another option, these require mixing plastics in with the wood, which creates other sustainability concerns and creates a different texture to the wood, Losego said.
Other chemically treated lumbers exist, but these require the use of liquid-phase processes that necessitate post-dry- ing. Researchers, using a gas-phase process, can eliminate the energy-intensive, time-intensive and expensive drying steps, Losego said.
Referring to public and private partnerships, Losego said, “We are always looking for collaborations with folks interested in this technology.” ■
Chris Butler is a journalist with nearly 20 years of experience writing about a variety of subjects, including local, state and federal politics, as well as business, law enforcement and various human interest pieces.
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