We Did it Again (Take that you pessimists)

Wood is an excellent building material. It is easy to manipulate, a good insulator and wood is completely renewable as well as biodegradable. It is more environmentally benign than competing materials like concrete or steel in its full lifecycle and wood is always at least carbon neutral & actually removes CO2 from the air. But wood has suffered from a big weakness; it was not strong enough to build tall structures. Until now.   

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) can transform the way in which wood is used. CLT can be used to replace pre-fabricated concrete panels or even steel in building. The Australians are currently building a ten story wood apartment building in Melbourne using CLT and experts believe that building as high as fifteen stories should be possible in the near future. This makes wood a suitable building material in all but the tallest buildings and goes a long way toward a sustainable future. But there is more.

A really exciting new development is nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). You may not have heard of this before because technologies needed to understand it, like electron scanning microscopes, were unavailable until recently. Experts quoted in the link above think that NCC will replace metal and plastic in many applications and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future and the U.S. National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

NCC has mechanical properties comparable to stainless steel or Kevlar and has a strength to weight ratio eight times better than steel. “It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price,” according to Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University’s NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana.

So the future for wood is bright, which has wonderful consequences for the environment and for America. The U.S. can produce all the wood fiber it needs in completely sustainable and often environmentally positive ways.

The world develops in unexpected ways. We often fear the future because it is unknown. We project our current problems forward and they seem unsolvable. They usually ARE unsolvable given the current state of technolgoy and development. The variables we too often leave out of the equation are human innovation, imagination and intelligence. Our resources are not fixed. They grow larger based on our abilities to use them. I wrote not long ago about the boom in shale oil that has vaulted the U.S. into world leadership in reduction of CO2.

This was predicted by nobody even five or ten years ago. In fact, had you mentioned such a possibility back in 2002 you would have been called all sorts of names, none of them synonyms for honest or intelligence. We are looking at a better than expected future. A related development is the shift of the energy center of gravity from those unstable regions of the Middle East to the Americas and maybe the Atlantic parts of Africa.

Those pessimists who project our problems forward and fear we will never solve them are right. Generally speaking, history shows that we almost never SOLVE problems; we transcend them.

As we replace non-renewable or environmentally unfriendly materials with those sourced in something as abundant and renewable as wood, we are fulfilling the impossible dreams of a previous generation of environmentalists and we are doing while increasing our country’s wealth and prosperity. I am fond of the future since I plan to live there for the rest of my life. It looks like it will be much better than the places I used to live.