As we move into the future, what used to happen only in nature is taking place in laboratories. In the new world of cell farming, scientists are producing meat without killing animals. And now it’s the trees’ turn to live, as scientists have figured out how to 3D print wood. Instead of being cut down and turned into chairs, newspapers, wallpaper, egg cartons, bags, boxes and toilet paper, trees will soon be able to keep growing, writes Inhabitat.
We need trees and wood
According to the same source, as the world’s human population grew to eight billion, with many of those people needing many things, we continued to cut down trees to provide an abundance of products. Since the dawn of human civilization, we have wiped out 54% of the Earth’s tree population, according to a global forest survey. And while we worry about protecting elephants and rhinos from poachers looking for ivory, the most trafficked wild product is actually rosewood. From Thailand to Madagascar, where rosewood grows, people are trying to cut down the endangered tree and sell it on the Chinese furniture market. The tangle with rosewood poachers ‘is so dangerous that the tree has earned the nickname ‘bloodwood’.
“But a tree need not have enough wood to make furniture fit for imperial dynasties to be valuable.” Trees provide shade to cool our neighborhoods, remove carbon from the atmosphere, filter water, clean our air and slow storms. So the ability to 3D print wood “is good news for people as well as trees.”
MIT geniuses are revolutionizing woodworking
Scientists associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory published their progress in Materials Today last year. They set out to work to reduce waste and environmental disruption while increasing yields and production rates.
They started with cells from Zinnia elegans, also known as zinnias.
“In principle, trying to produce plant materials in the absence of plant support is not entirely different from tissue engineering in animal cell systems,” the study authors wrote. “In both fields, cells in a structured, nutrient-rich growth environment can be directed to grow into tissue-like products.”
Plant cells require different metabolic pathways than animal cells, but scientists were able to tap into the more developed field of mammals. Until now, most tissue engineering efforts have focused on culturing animal cells. The study authors note that their work is the first to use the cell farming approach to generate plant material. You can read all the juicy details of the study here.
3D wood printing startup
MIT scientists may be the first to make wood from zinnia cells. But they are not the first to experiment with alternative ways of manufacturing wood. For a few years now, a startup called Forust has been 3D printing wood, starting from sawdust and lignin wood waste. This last component is an organic polymer that is one of the main components of wood.
“We realized very quickly that waste wood is a material that could be transformed for 3D printing,” Virginia San Fratello, chair of the design department at San Jose State University and one of Forust’s founders, told Fast Company in 2021. The process involves layers of sawdust and non-toxic binders to recreate the grain of the wood.
“A tree is made of lignin and cellulose,” said Ric Fulop, CEO of Desktop Metal, a larger 3D printing company that includes Forust, as reported by Fast Company. “When you make things out of trees, whether it’s furniture or paper, you’re essentially dematerializing the tree … what you’re trying to do is reassemble it.” It might sound a bit like a cluster of particles. But the grain in 3D printed wood runs through the material so you can sand and finish it just like wood.
And there is a lot of sawdust and excess lignin. Dust diverts these materials from landfills.
“Hundreds of millions of metric tons of waste are generated each year in the United States alone,” Fulop said.
One of the interesting things about these two processes is that the objects can be 3D printed in their final form. Companies can 3D print a chair or a table – with no waste. They can also print complex shapes. Perhaps best of all, 3D printing could lead to a circular process for wood manufacturing. When your old headboard wears out or breaks, you can send it back to the manufacturer, where it can be milled and 3D printed into a bookcase or chair or whatever the market calls for. Furniture could be made in a completely new way, without waste.
“Of course, wood 3D printing technology is still in its infancy. But MIT scientists are optimistic. Their study envisions a future in which materials can be produced locally, anywhere in the world, without the need for sunlight or land,” Inhabitat concludes.