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USDA Forest Product Lab - Creating Scientific Wonders from Wood

Did you know that the U.S. Forest Service has a Forest Products Lab (FPL) conducting cutting-edge research to advance wood science and its applications, and it has been doing so for 110 years?!

The lab was established in Madison, Wisconsin in 1910 with the mission to find ways “to use our wood resources wisely and efficiently, while at the same time keeping our forests healthy.” – Forest Product Laboratory

In 2010, FPL realigned its mission and strategic plan. The lab’s plan now focuses on innovative research addressing the “driving forces affecting our world and lives.” Its mission is “to identify and conduct innovative wood and fiber utilization research that contributes to conservation and productivity of the forest resource, thereby sustaining forests, the economy, and quality of life.”

Today, FPL’s research emphasizes Advanced Composites, Advanced Structures, Forest Biorefinery, Nanotechnology, and Woody Biomass Utilization.

Advanced Composites research focuses on creating composite products from biobased materials, often undervalued, such as wood fiber, particles, or flakes. These composites have been used for building and home furnishing products for many years. Still, they are now expanding into other markets, including consumer products, for example, biopolymer food packaging made from wood fibers.

Advanced Structures research focuses on enhancing wood's value by creating advanced technologies and alternative building methods. An example of this work is a wood tornado shelter FPL researchers developed for residential use that can be built into a home using readily available materials and tools. Click here for documents and videos on building your tornado shelter.

Forest Biorefinery research has been underway at the FPL for decades. It involves finding ways to convert biomass into transportation fuel and chemicals. Currently, biofuel is primarily made from fermented sugars derived from food crops, such as corn, rice, and sugars. FPL scientists believe that trees could be a better alternative. One of the lab’s scientists recently joined a team that converted softwood forest slash from a pulp mill into 1,050 gallons of bio-jet fuel!

“Trees grow in marginal soils that will not support agriculture; do not require fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides; and accumulate biomass density for several years before incurring harvest costs. Although a more challenging process than creating biofuel from agricultural matter, converting wood resources into liquid fuels and chemical feedstock is becoming more cost-competitive, thanks in part to researchers at the FPL, who are continually developing technologies to reduce the net cost of renewable biofuel.” – Forest Products Laboratory

Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field focused on understanding and engineering matter at the atomic and molecular levels. All sorts of cutting-edge applications are underway. One example is the use of cellulose nanocrystal-enhanced concrete. FPL scientists are conducting nanoscale research to learn more about the composition of wood and the manufacturing, characterization, and application of cellulose nanomaterials.

A bridge with cellulose nanocrystal-enhanced concrete was recently constructed over the Moffett Creek in Siskiyou County, California. A team of experts from the Forest Products Lab, Oregon State University, and a concrete mixer developed the cellulose nanocrystal-enhanced concrete. Adding cellulose nanocrystal to concrete can improve the strength of the concrete and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” – U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service

FPL scientists are also researching innovative ways to use underutilized woody biomass, including forest residues, sawmill residues, and construction scrap wood, furthering FPL’s original mission to find ways to use our wood resources wisely and efficiently. Some of the uses found include using it as raw material in the high-commodity uses of wood, including engineered wood, composites, and different types of paper products.

Forests are a fantastic resource, and wood from this resource is already found in thousands of products we use every day, and thanks to the work of the Forest Products Lab, the uses for wood, and the possibilities continue to grow. Wood from sustainably grown trees is renewable and recyclable. If appropriately managed, forests can provide excellent resources for future generations.

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