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See-Through Wood to Brighten Buildings

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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Buildings of the future may utilize a material capable of providing interior spaces with ample amounts of daylighting. Hint: It’s not glass.

It’s something called “transparent wood.”

Swedish scientists report that they have developed a wood material that allows light to pass through. Potential applications of the technology include solar cells, windows and semi-transparent facades.

transparent wood
American Chemical Society

While the wood material isn’t as crystal clear as glass, its haziness provides a possible advantage for solar cell applications, according to the researchers.

The scientists from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology recently published their findings in the American Chemical Society’s journal Biomacromolecules.

The Discovery

Recent research aimed at making transparent paper from wood was said to have inspired the team, led by Lars Berglund, a professor at the Wallenberg Wood Science Center at KTH.

Berglund and his colleagues reportedly removed lignin from samples of commercial balsa wood. Lignin is a structural polymer in plants that blocks 80 to 95 percent of light from passing through, according to the American Chemical Society.

“When the lignin is removed, the wood becomes beautifully white,” explained Berglund. “But because wood isn’t naturally transparent, we achieve that effect with some nanoscale tailoring.”

To allow light to pass through the wood more directly, the team incorporated a transparent polymer, often known as Plexiglass.

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Lars Berglund, a professor at the Wallenberg Wood Science Center at KTH, led the study.

The researchers could not only see through the resulting material, but also maintain that it was twice as strong as Plexiglass, they reported.

Solar Potential

“No one has previously considered the possibility of creating larger transparent structures for use as solar cells and in buildings,” Berglund noted.

While the wood material isn’t as crystal clear as glass, its haziness provides a possible advantage for solar cell applications, according to the researchers. Specifically, because the material still traps some light, it could be used to boost the efficiency of these cells, the team said.

What’s Next?

The team reports that it is still working on enhancing the transparency of the material and scaling up the manufacturing process.

Also, the team seeks to work with different types of wood.

“Wood is by far the most used bio-based material in buildings,” said Berglund. “It's attractive that the material comes from renewable sources. It also offers excellent mechanical properties, including strength, toughness, low density and low thermal conductivity.”

Funding for the research was provided by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Building Envelope; Building facades; Building materials; Building science; Glass; North America; Research and development; Windows; Wood

Comment from Fern Henley, (4/27/2016, 5:20 AM)

Heartwood from Honduran mahogany is translucent red and glows beautifully when sun shines through.

Comment from Jesse Melton, (4/27/2016, 8:36 AM)

Calling vacuum-pressure wood impregnation "nanoscale tailoring" is a bit rich. People have been using PMMA to alter the properties of wood for almost 90 years. There were lampshades made from lignin deficient cellulose fibers stabilized with PMMA in the 1930's. They're quite attractive. If lightbulbs of the era hadn't been so incredibly inefficient, resulting in lampshade combustion, the trend probably wouldn't have died off. Granted, using the material in PV panels wasn't happening in the 1930's, then again, it's not happening today either. They're just hoping to latch the product onto the sustainable energy discussion.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (4/27/2016, 10:54 AM)

I'm still holding my breath for transparent aluminum ;)

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/28/2016, 9:36 AM)

Transparent aluminum (well, aluminum oxide) is here. Just needs to be scaled up and reduced in price. Optical sapphire.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (4/29/2016, 11:38 AM)

Hehehe....Tom, I had an idea about the sapphire glass from watch crystals :) I was thinking more along the lines of that wonderful creation of Gene Roddenberry for floor to ceiling transparent walls that are structural like steel ;)

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/2/2016, 11:33 AM)

Yep, and I've always interpreted Gene's creation as industrial-scale white sapphire. Should work well structurally. Tensile strength is right in there with aluminum alloy with a much higher compressive strength. :)

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