Deforestation has been an issue for decades. As the world continues to industrialize and expand urban areas, more land is lost, and trees are cut down. Some of this timber is used for furniture, but much of the wood is wasted during the crafting process. New scientific discoveries may have found a way to grow timber in a lab without cutting down a single tree.
In May 2022, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found a way to successfully grow a wood-like plant material in a lab without processing any lumber. Through a series of chemical processes and a little bit of 3D printing, the scientists manipulated the material to have the density and stiffness of traditional wood. They can create shapes and sizes that wouldn’t be naturally occurring. With these developments, the need to chop down trees for wooden structures may become less necessary, especially if this new material can be morphed into various shapes.
How can these scientists change this material’s shape? They used the power of other organic materials, particularly the flowering plant Common zinnia. The cells of the Common zinnia were mixed in a liquid medium for a couple of days. Then, a gel-based medium was added to the plant cells with nutrients and hormones to make them more malleable and denser at the same time.
“In the human body, you have hormones that determine how your cells develop and how certain traits emerge. In the same way, by changing the hormone concentrations in the nutrient broth, the plant cells respond differently,” said Ashley Beckwith, lead researcher. “Just by manipulating these tiny chemical quantities, we can elicit pretty dramatic changes in terms of the physical outcomes.” The research found that lower hormone levels in the wood material yielded more rounded, open cells with a lower density. Higher hormones produced stiffer material with smaller, denser cells.
MIT is not the only institution making groundbreaking discoveries with lab-grown timber. The University of Maryland (UMD) made headlines in the scientific community when it found a way to treat wood to make it stronger than some metal alloys.
According to Liangbing Hu, the lead researcher and engineering professor, “This could be a competitor to steel or even titanium alloys; it is so strong and durable. It’s also comparable to carbon fiber but much less expensive.”
Videos have shown the durability of the material, and it could change the narrative around the need for wood for construction. Flimsy wood like pine or balsa wood could undergo this treatment, and since these types of timber grow fast and are abundant in nature, the need to harvest maple, oak, and other kinds of hardwood becomes less necessary.
When the MIT lab-grown timber is linked with UMD’s wood treatment process, a viable solution for deforestation seems to be on the horizon. Growing wood in a lab generates zero waste, meaning none of the initial product is subtracted. The material’s malleability could become the preferred source when building houses or crafting wooden furniture.
While woodworkers have found creative ways to utilize typically unused pieces of wood, around 35% of the wood for furniture-making goes to waste. Not to mention that using non-traditional cuts of wood doesn’t provide a solution to deforestation. As the world gets more attuned to the need to save forests for carbon sequestration and to keep the Earth’s natural resources plentiful, lab-grown timber and treated wood could offer hope.