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Kirsty Hammond looks at how more use of wood in construction could transform our buildings

For millions of years humans have been using wood for all that was essential and there was a time when our world was pretty much made from wood.

Weapons, wheels, homes, ships, and of course it was also a vital fuel source.

Wood is not only renewable but it also offers a way to capture excess carbon from the outer atmosphere.

Cellulose, which is the main component of wood, is currently produced at 20 times the volume of steel.

Can you imagine that the cities of the future will house 75% of the world's population in predicted safe, efficient and sustainable wood buildings?

It is five times more thermally efficient than glass, cutting energy costs and improving insulation

Kirsty Hammond Kirsty Hammond Publisher of Specifier Review

Economic wood

Wood as a building material is extremely versatile, safe and easy to specify.

It is economically competitive for large structures such as stadiums, halls and even swimming pools. It is lighter in weight than concrete but has exceptional strength and rigidity.

Architecture is enthusiastically rediscovering wood and there are now many examples across the globe of successful homes and structures.

The Hoho in Vienna has a height of 84 meters and the Mjostarnet in Norway stands at 85 meters, currently the highest wooden building in the world.

But what if we took this concept even further!?

Seeing the wood for the trees

For making windows we rely on both glass and plastic which of course are usually transparent.

Glass however is not a good insulator and whilst it introduces light into a building a huge proportion of a buildings heat is lost through glass.

Recently scientists have been experimenting with making wood transparent. Not only is it an excellent insulator but it can also be made from a sustainable and renewable source.

Wood consists of two main components cellulose and lignin.

The lignin absorbs light and is responsible for its brown appearance. The fibres in the wood are mainly composed of cellulose which are hollow tube like structures. The air in these hollow tubes scatters light and thus reduces its transparency.

Clear to see

A new study, by researchers at the University of Maryland, demonstrates how to make wood transparent by simply using hydrogen peroxide, which we know to be commonly used to bleach hair.

This chemical modifies the chromophores, changing their structure so they no longer act to absorb light and colour the wood. The chemical can be brushed onto the wood, and then activated using light to produce a brilliant white material, blond in colour.

The chemical reaction of wood with hydrogen peroxide is commonly used. It’s the basis for bleaching wood pulp used for paper making and is one of the reasons why paper is brilliant white.

The other reason paper is white is because pores or holes in its structure scatter light, just like the hollow cellulose fibres in wood.

Filling these fibres with resin reduces that scattering, allowing light to pass through the wood and making it transparent. The final product is a piece of wood that allows more than 90 percent of light to pass through it and is more than 50 times stronger than transparent wood with the lignin completely removed.

Transparent wood is cost efficient too. It is five times more thermally efficient than glass, cutting energy costs and improving insulation. It is produced from a sustainable renewable resource and successfully reduces carbon emissions.

The benefits of transparent wood are clear!

Kirsty Hammond is publisher of Specifier Review