Sustainability: Experiment converts felled trees into auto parts

15-09-2016
sustainability,Clemson University,felled trees

Trees that are felled during forest restoration projects could find their way into car bumpers and fenders, according to Clemson University study.

Led by assistant professor Srikanth Pilla, the experiment converts some of those trees into liquid suspensions of tiny rod-like structures with diameters 20,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These tiny structures, known as cellulosic nanomaterials, are used to develop new composite materials that could be shaped into automotive parts with improved strength. 

The U.S. Department of the Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding the $481,000 research project for five years. Pilla’s research will be based out of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, South Carolina, in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory.

Craig Clemons, a materials research engineer at the Forest Products Laboratory and co-principal investigator on the project, said that the Forest Service wants to find large-volume uses for cellulosic nanomaterials.

“We find appropriate outlets for all kinds of forest-derived materials,” Mr Clemons said. “In this case, it’s cellulosic nanomaterials. We’re trying to move up the value chain with the cellulosic nanomaterials, creating high-value products out of what could otherwise be low-value wood. We’ll be producing the cellulosic nanomaterials, which are the most fundamental structural elements that you can get out of wood and pulp fibres. We’ll also be lending our more than 25 years of experience in creating composites from plastics and wood-derived materials to the project.”

The cellulosic nanomaterials could come from trees that are removed during forest restoration projects. Removing this material from the forests helps prevent large, catastrophic wildfires. Researchers will have no need to cut down healthy trees that could be used for other purposes, Pilla said.

“The use of cellulosic nanomaterials will help meet the needs of people for sustainable, renewable and lightweight products while helping to improve the health and condition of America’s forests," Ted Wegner, assistant director at the Forest Products Laboratory, added. "Commercialisation of cellulosic nanomaterials has the potential to create jobs, especially in rural America.”


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