We Did it Again (Take that you pessimists)

Wood is an excellent building material. It is easy to manipulate, a good insulator and wood is completely renewable as well as biodegradable. It is more environmentally benign than competing materials like concrete or steel in its full lifecycle and wood is always at least carbon neutral & actually removes CO2 from the air. But wood has suffered from a big weakness; it was not strong enough to build tall structures. Until now.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) can transform the way in which wood is used. CLT can be used to replace pre-fabricated concrete panels or even steel in building. The Australians are currently building a ten story wood apartment building in Melbourne using CLT and experts believe that building as high as fifteen stories should be possible in the near future. This makes wood a suitable building material in all but the tallest buildings and goes a long way toward a sustainable future. But there is more.

A really exciting new development is nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). You may not have heard of this before because technologies needed to understand it, such as electron scanning microscopes, were unavailable until recently. Experts quoted in the link above think that NCC will replace metal and plastic in many applications and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future and the U.S. National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

NCC has mechanical properties comparable to stainless steel or Kevlar and has a strength to weight ratio eight times better than steel. "It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price," according to Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University's NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana.

So the future for wood is bright, which has wonderful consequences for the environment and for America. The U.S. can produce all the wood fiber it needs in completely sustainable and often environmentally positive ways.

The world develops in unexpected ways. We often fear the future because it is unknown. We project our current problems forward and they seem unsolvable. The variables we too often leave out of the equation are human innovation, imagination and intelligence. Our resources are not fixed. They grow larger based on our abilities to use them. I wrote not long ago about the boom in shale oil that has vaulted the U.S. into world leadership in reduction of CO2.

This was predicted by nobody even five or ten years ago. In fact, had you mentioned such a possibility back in 2002 you would have been called all sorts of names, none of them synonyms for honest or intelligent. We are looking at a better than expected future. A related development is the shift of the energy center of gravity from those unstable regions of the Middle East to the Americas and maybe the Atlantic parts of Africa.

Those pessimists who project our problems forward and fear we will never solve them are right. Generally speaking, history shows that we almost never SOLVE problems; we transcend them.

As we replace non-renewable or environmentally unfriendly materials with those sourced in something as abundant and renewable as wood, we are fulfilling the impossible dreams of a previous generation of environmentalists and we are doing while increasing our country's wealth and prosperity. I am fond of the future since I plan to live there for the rest of my life. It looks like it will be much better than the places I used to live.

Posted by Christine & John at September 1, 2012 8:16 PM
Comment #351972

wood is always at least carbon neutral & actually removes CO2 from the air.

“Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” - Ronald Reagan.
Guess that makes you RINO’s now, doesn’t it? How dare you contradict our Lord and Savior?

And if there’s one thing Romney has made clear during this campaign, it’s that he only likes trees that are the right size. So If you want him to support you on this, you’re going to have to find a way to control tree growth. ;-)

Posted by: Heh at September 2, 2012 12:41 AM
Comment #351974


Thank you for the simple-minded view. It is instructive to be reminded that a large number of people really cannot understand what I write and that there is a throw away factor of trying to be serious with frivolous people. But I have more pearl to cast.

Can’t you guys ever just be thankful for good things. Is it always necessary to attack using gaffs that are a quarter century old? Or ones that are irrelevant.

Reagan was a great president in most ways. Even the greatest of us has weaknesses or blind spots. I don’t expect to agree with anyone always and everywhere. In any case, conditions have changed quite a bit, as I point out and in what I thought was a simple enough way for most people to grasp.

Re Romney - it is a light hearted statement. I know what he is talking about, however. As anyone who has traveled and observed nature knows, forest composition and tree size varies by location. The woods I grew up with are different from others, even those nearby. When I go back to the places I grew up, the forests are more familiar. One reason is that the trees are the “right” size, i.e. they look like the ones I grew with knowing.

Posted by: C&J at September 2, 2012 7:14 AM
Comment #351980

Thanks C&J for an informative post. I haven’t heard about the newer uses of wood. It sounds like a wonderful situation where everyone wins.

I don’t know what problems might be involved in the processing of these super wood products, but I would guess they aren’t as severe as making steel or carbon fiber.

Posted by: tdobson at September 2, 2012 9:59 AM
Comment #351982


Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, so I suppose there will be problems with these things too. But things generally are getting better and these new technologies are going in the right direction.

Posted by: C&J at September 2, 2012 10:20 AM
Comment #351984

They look like interesting building materials, but all materials have tradeoffs, so keep that in mind. Also keep in mind that steel and concrete are based on materials that are plentifully sourced, and can build skyscrapers much taller.

Additionally, there’s a question of how much material would be available, and how much the market would be willing to give up for this scale of building. There are cellulose rich plants other than trees that could be grown for such a purpose and which would have a faster turnover than trees.

As for the rest? I’d much prefer to take a slightly more pessimistic than not position on any new technology, because there are always catches, always limitations, and always costs involved. At the same time, we must invest and we should invest in green technology, because you have through all the mistakes and dead ends in order to find the profitable route. Most successes worth mentioning require trail and error, effort and perseverance.

One last thing: Never try to justify a certain technological attitude on revolutionary science grounds, because the inherent purposes of science is to test and verify such claims, because we don’t know the truth before hand. The results you get from experiment and observation are not completely knowable in advance, and that’s the point of science: You combine logic and empirical observation to determine the truth, when you can’t know everything beforehand.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 2, 2012 11:26 AM
Comment #351987

Or put another way, science and engineering are disciplines that require hard work and a willingness to go beyond personal beliefs to recognize realities, which while not ideal, may carry with them greater bounties of usefulness and knowledge than the alternative.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at September 2, 2012 11:32 AM
Comment #351990


I agree. As I often say, yesterday solutions are today’s problems. I wrote that right above.

But this looks very promising.

The problem with concrete and steel is involved in their manufacturing and disposal. Concrete production add as much as 5% of the total CO2 emissions in the world.

BTW concrete is a great material too. I am not saying we should abandon it. The is a very interesting book called “Concrete Planet” that you may want to read.

I am also not advocating making decisions in advance. We now have a greater range of options, but I believe in the market, so I believe in experimentation, lots of choices, prototypes and change and I dislike top-down all inclusive decisions.

Posted by: C&J at September 2, 2012 12:05 PM
Comment #351991


“Reagan was a great president in most ways. Even the greatest of us has weaknesses or blind spots.”

Reagan was a great president in “some” ways. In others he was the worst thing that ever happened in this country.

RE: shale oil - It has been used since prehistoric times, and because the price of oil dropped precipitously in the early ’80s Exxon abandoned a $5 billion project to extract it in Colorado so this isn’t anything really new. Curiously, Estonia is the only country that uses oil shale nearly exclusively to generate power.

RE: Laminated wood beams- This also has been used for quite some time albeit not on a skyscraper scale. The first recorded use of laminated wooden beams is in the 1860s in England.

The interesting thing about this is even though it is a sustainable resource, it remains a short term solution for a long term problem.

RE: Forests - You know as well as I there is a vast difference between a forest and a tree plantation.
Reagan’s comments ie; “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?” displays an ignorance and closed-mindedness that still pervades the far right.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at September 2, 2012 12:25 PM
Comment #351993


There is very little that is really “new” in this world. The wood products have gotten much better in recent years and the nanoproducts are in process of creating a revolution in materials.

Re sustainable forestry - I don’t understand how this is a short term solution. We can produce these sorts of raw materials pretty much forever. Better yet, they have the collateral benefit of helping clean water, disposal for sewage, wildlife habitat and recreation.

If you are talking about shale gas - this is a medium term solution. It is a great gift to us. In the long term, we will indeed develop alternatives that do not use fossil fuels, but this is as good as it gets now.

In future, we will have a lot more opportunities, in any case. The solar panels etc we are using now will be a lot like stone tools in comparison to what we will be able to make in a generation. When the solution comes, as the one above, it will surprise the so-called experts, but will just be part of the game.

Re Reagan - I diverged with his opinions on environment. But I recognize that his was an older generation. Their task was to conquer the hostile environment and tame it. We faced different challenges and learned from their mistakes, as the future will from ours. Were we to build the Hoover Dam today, we would do things a lot differently, but we can still respect the attitudes and methods that built these things.

Beyond that, we need to respect nature and work with forests, but it is true that trees are 100% renewable and we should cut some all the time.

Posted by: C&J at September 2, 2012 12:39 PM
Comment #351995

How well I remember this poem from by college days at UW-Stevens Point in the College of Natural Resources.

Joyce Kilmer. 1886–1918


I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day, 5
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain. 10

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Sadly, I lost about 30 trees last year due to drought and disease on my little ranch in East Texas. However, they keep on giving as they have been turned into firewood and will heat someone’s home for years to come.

Posted by: Royal Flush at September 2, 2012 1:46 PM
Comment #351996


“But I recognize that his was an older generation. Their task was to conquer the hostile environment and tame it.”

An even older generation, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Muir for instance, believed much differently than Reagan.

America hasn’t been a frontier to be conquered for more than a century.

RE: Sustainability - Blue wood isn’t going to be in abundance every year. Drought causes stress to the trees, and allows the beetles to take hold. Some decades will be better (or worse) than others.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at September 2, 2012 2:16 PM
Comment #351997


We can grow as much wood as anybody reasonably needs. There are lots of improvements in this area too. In Virginia we can grow a pine tree to maturity in 30 years. A couple generations ago the sames species took 70 and the trees were crooked and much more susceptible to disease. We also get two thinning in those 30 years that can produce those wood products. Our friends in Brazil can produce eucalyptus in six years. There are some weaknesses, but it makes good fiber. Furnishing enough wood will be no problem at all.

Re Reagan - As I said, I didn’t agree with all his policies. I recognize that even admirable people can be seriously wrong in some things.

Reagan helped bring American back, improved the economy, restored faith in our country and generally did well for eight years. His attitude toward trees caused no lasting damage, probably no real damage at all. Our forests are in better shape today than they were on the day Reagan took office, so no big deal.

Re Teddy Roosevelt & John Muir - I have always liked them, although they are very different. Roosevelt’s brand of conservation is very close to what I believe. He understood that you have to kill some animals and cut some trees to create sustainability. Muir was mostly a poet in how he viewed nature. The real hero of the early part of the century is Gifford Pinchot.

Posted by: C&J at September 2, 2012 2:50 PM
Comment #352011


“The real hero of the early part of the century is Gifford Pinchot.”

And he was followed by one of the true villains, William Greeley, who decided that Satan was at work in forest fires, and ordered firefighting to “save the forests” at all costs so that the lumber industry could clear cut the trees.

During a trip to Idaho a few years back I was able to see for myself what a forest recovering from a clear cut looked like. The trees were pretty much all the same size, there was little diversity, and even though we were miles from any habitation there was no wildlife to be seen.

And this clear cut was nearly 80 years ago.

Ignorance solves nothing Jack.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at September 3, 2012 8:28 AM
Comment #352013


Clear cutting is a legitimate management strategy for some species. You cannot get regeneration of most pines without a clear cut or a really big fire, for example.

We are learning all the time. We no longer exclude fire. One of the other legacies we are now struggling with is environmentalism. Back in the 1970s, there was a poorer understanding of forest dynamics. We tried to “protect” areas that needed to change and sometimes be managed.

The American landscape is dynamic. Indians started lots of fires and as a result of their activities there were fewer trees. When European diseases thinned out the Indians, trees grew back. European settlers showed up a few decades later and found these robust forests and thought that was how it had always been. But it was merely a stage that was not sustainable.

The eighty year old clear cut you saw was probably poorly managed. In Arizona, there is a problem of the legacy of cutting and grazing. When the trees fill in, they come back to thick, setting up the whole thing for fire that destroy to much. That clearcut should have been thinned at least twice, maybe three times to let in light. Wildlife would thrive. BTW - a clearcut two or three years out is one of the richest wildlife habitats available.

Thick forests usually are NOT the home of much wildlife. Wildlife thrives on the edges of communities. I cannot speak to the forest you visited. In Virginia, we maintain wildlife corridors and stream management zones that are literally jumping with wildlife.

Posted by: C&J at September 3, 2012 9:07 AM
Comment #352052

Not a quail or ‘Bob White’ to be found in Rappahannock Co. Pine beetles have killed off a lot of big pine trees. And, globalism got the Chestnuts way back when.

Posted by: Roy Ellis at September 3, 2012 6:17 PM
Comment #352061


Rappahannock County has not had a particular problem with pine beetles. You have problems with your white pines mostly rust. Pine beetles are native anyway. They can be controlled with good management.

Quail can be restored. Ironically, the quail suffered from too much forest growth. Quail do very well in disturbed places. A clear cut plus two years is excellent quail habitat. My farms are in Brunswick Co. We used to have a lot more quail on one tract when it was more recently cut over. Creating good quail habitat is simple but maybe not easy. You have to clear and burn. Rappahannock is getting lots of urban people who dislike both those things, but wonder why they don’t have quail.

I have never actually done work in Rappahannock, but I have visited tree farms in Rockingham and Frederick and there is plenty of wildlife there.

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Comment #354245

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