Scientists develop optically transparent wood

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optically transparent wood
A sample of the transparent wood developed at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Credit: KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Swedish Researchers uncovered a new major possibility of a low-cost renewable material suitable for mass production – by making wood transparent.

In April, a study in Sweden discovered a process of removing lignin, the complex organic polymer responsible for giving wood its color and rigidity. They did so by boiling blocks of wood for two hours in a mixture of water, sodium hydroxide and a number of other chemicals. The process gave an astonishing result – a material with both high transparency and high haze. However, the removal of lignin decreased the wood’s resiliency.

As a response, researchers at the University of Maryland did their own experiment following the same process of making the wood transparent, but this time, adding epoxy to make the product four to five times stronger than glass.

The innovation presented a long list of possible applications including building advanced solar panels. In addition, a tougher transparent wood can be a better replacement for glass in automobiles, stronger windows as well as high-tech lab equipment.

While its transparency is almost similar to an actual glass, it is observable that there is a big difference in its structure. The chemical treatment did not remove the wood’s natural tube-life patterns from its life as a tree. These vascular lines once served as tunnels to circulate water and nutrients up and down the trunk and branches.

In an interview with The New York Times, LIangbing Hu, one of the researchers at Maryland University emphasized that the transparent wood possesses a “waveguide effect” so that more light could pass through, compared with the traditional glass where “light gets scattered”.

Researchers are now working on other possibilities that could improve the new material and they are currently thinking of strategies for improving the production process with the goal of treating larger blocks of transparent and stronger wood.