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All Things Wood: USFS-Forest Products Laboratory

With a recycling rate at 95%, wood pallets and containers are an essential part of environmentally friendly initiatives to create a more sustainable supply chain. Much of the research in wood products as a renewable, sustainable resource is conducted by the forest products industry in conjunction with government entities. In this week’s post, Nature’s Packaging will explore one of those agencies with a deeper dive into the United States Forest Service-Forest Products Lab.

Origin

The Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) was created in 1909 under the direction of the 1st Chief of the Forest Service – Gifford Pinchot. He, along with McGarvey Cline and Overton Price, recognized the need for a facility to study, research, and test the physical properties of wood for commercial, industrial, and military uses.

McGarvey Cline is credited with being the driving force behind the creation of the lab and he led the initiative to align with a university. Cline realized that seeking a collaborative agreement with a university would benefit both the pathway for technical study and research of wood, and develop a steady stream of expertise for the forest products community. He also selected the first 45 scientists and personnel to staff the lab.

McGarvey Cline chose the University of Wisconsin at Madison as the official location of the first Forest Products Laboratory and was appointed its first official director. The official ceremony of dedication was conducted on June 4th, 1910 with an upgraded building and laboratory facility built in 1932.

Forest Products Lab

Vision & Mission

The current strategic plan of the Forest Products Lab was devised in 2010. It includes both the mission and vision statements of the FPL:

Mission – To identify and conduct innovative wood and fiber utilization research that contributes to conservation and productivity of the forest resource, thereby sustaining forests, the economy, and quality of life.

Vision – To be a world leader in innovative wood utilization research that significantly improves quality of life and national competitiveness while conserving wood and fiber.In reaching our vision, we will help create a future in which people throughout the world benefit from healthy forests and grasslands that provide round wood, solid sawn wood, composites, fiber, chemicals, energy, and other renewable materials in a sustainable manner.

Research Areas

The focus of the FPL is currently centered around 5 key areas of emphasis:

Advanced Composites – representing more than 40% of the total materials used in residential construction, the FPL works to create composite products from bio-based materials. Composites are especially useful because they can be created from fibers, particles, and flakes from smaller tree species and can also utilize post-industrial and post-consumer wood waste materials.

Advanced Structures – centered around creating innovative wood-based technologies for housing and buildings like engineered wood products, moisture control, performance coatings and finishes, adhesives, wood preservation and composites. Many of the materials used in modern wood frame house and building construction originate here.

Forest Bio-refinery – focused on the development of bio-based fuels and chemicals. This group of technologies utilize chemical, biochemical, and thermal methods to create fuels and chemicals from biomass. Secondarily, this area also works on how to efficiently and effectively remove the woody biomass that can choke forests and create extreme wildfire situations.

Nanotechnology – research in nanocellulose technology through the use of structural, chemical, and mechanical techniques. This section also launched the Nanocellulose Pilot Plant in 2012, which has become a premiere worldwide research facility for the science.

Woody Biomass Utilization – concentrating on the utilization of small diameter, overstocked and underutilized tree material that represent significant forest overgrowth. This area of emphasis has worked to identify other ways to use this material to create profitable by-products and businesses. Examples would include structural material for use in bridges, walkways, and buildings.   

FPL & Wood Pallets

The Pallet Foundation, in conjunction with the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, recently released an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). This important document is made available to the public and provides transparent, factual, product specific environmental data and information which is independently verified through the UL Environment EPD program.

A key part of the EPD is the Life-Cycle Assessment which was a study conducted by the Forest Products Lab that evaluated the environmental impact of manufacturing and recycling wooden pallets. The study covered the cradle-to-grave life-cycle stages of the wooden pallet supply chain using an FPL life-cycle assessment methodology. This included:  sourcing of raw material, product manufacturing, transportation, and reuse, repair, and final disposal of pallets.

The overall conclusion is that recycling and proper end of lifecycle disposal practices with wooden pallets are carbon neutral. Because of the difficulty in tracking pallets through the supply chain, a key feature of the study was an assessment based on a single repair of a pallet. Typically, in real world situations, pallets are repaired multiple times over the life of the product. This would increase the positive environmental impact of wood pallets over their lifetime:

Wood pallets and their components are easy to repair. This study considered a single repair, which was conservative and thus probably overestimated the environmental impacts of a sectoral analysis as indicated by the repair and reuse stage [B2]. If more repairs were considered, less virgin wood material would be required in addition to extending the RSL, which would probably have a substantial positive environmental impact because of how much the wood material inputs affected the GHG profile.

The Future

Since 1910, The US Forest Service – Forest Products Lab has endeavored to provide meaningful facts, data, and science that utilizes wood as its primary resource. Going into the future, the FPL will work to address the critical challenges that affect our modern world. These challenges include:

Carbon Sequestration – forest products research to improve the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions

Sustainable Forestry – sustainable development of forests in the face of worldwide exponential population growth and deforestation

Alternative Energy Sources – ever increasing energy demands coupled with the need to develop new alternatives and create more efficient energy sources that will touch everything from transportation to housing

Urbanization – incorporating and improving forest conservation, maintenance, and growth in the face of increased urban development

Globalization – informing decisions from a local, national, global level by understanding the interconnectedness of all nations and people across the globe and how forests and trees play a key role as a resource

Technological Change – staying at the forefront of information dissemination and structuring accessibility to information utilizing modern communication technologies

Economic Forces – the status of both the US and global economy play a key role in determining how research and study is conducted and how the results are implemented to the benefit of all concerned

Political & Social Forces – All branches of the US government and the public itself will continue to have a profound impact and strong influence on the FPL as it continues to lead research and science in the areas of sustainability, renewable resources, environmental health, and industrial processes.

The Forest Products Lab will continue to uphold its mission, vision, and strategic plan into the 21st century and promote the healthy, sustainable growth of US forests. The lab will also continue to develop cutting edge technologies and science that further enhances the renewable resource of wood and traditional forest products.

Innovation in Wood – Cross Laminated Timber

cross laminated timber

The W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana is just one of an increasing number of institutions looking to cross-laminated timber (CLT) for new construction. UM recently requested money from the state legislature to help fund the building of its new $45 million CLT building, to be built from wood grown, harvested, and manufactured in that state.

“It just makes perfect sense for a forestry building and tells the story, and it is a much more sustainable and reasonable way to go,” Alan Townsend, the Franke College dean, told The Missoulian. “And it can look really cool. It’d be a pretty iconic building on campus.”

Based on its earlier adoption in Europe as a building material, interest in CLT structures continues to grow in North America and around the world. Buildings manufactured with CLT panels are faster to construct, more energy-efficient and made from renewable material. Let’s take a closer look.

What is Cross Laminated Timber (CLT)?

Cross-laminated timber (CLT), a sub-category of engineered wood, is created by gluing together several layers of kiln-dried lumber. Laid flat, they are glued together on their wide faces, with grain in alternating directions at 90 degrees.

Panels most frequently consist of three, five, seven or nine alternating layers. Layer thickness typically ranges from ⅝” to 2” and board width from 2.4” to 9.5”. It is similar to plywood, however with significantly thicker laminations or layers.  The layered stacks are glued and then pressed vertically as well as horizontally to create panels, which can then be accurately sized and finished for installation.

Typical panel widths are 2, 4, 8 or 10 feet, while panel length may extend to 60 feet. CLT is different than glued laminated timber (glulam) in which all laminations are oriented in the same direction.

What is the History of CLT?

Cross-laminated timber was first introduced in the early 1990s in Germany and Austria. Since that time, it has continued to gain popularity for residential and non-residential building construction in Europe.

After slow initial growth, its popularity began to increase in the early 2000’s thanks to the green building movement, as well as through newfound efficiencies, product approvals, and improved marketing and distribution.

CLT usage in buildings has increased significantly in the last decade. Hundreds of impressive buildings and other structures built around the world using CLT bring to life the substantial benefits made possible by CLT. The European projects demonstrate that CLT construction can be competitive, particularly in mid-rise and high-rise buildings.

What are the Advantages of CLT?

According to www.woodworks.org, the major benefits of CLT are listed as follows:

Design flexibility: CLT panel thickness can be easily increased to allow for longer spans, and custom cut as required with CNC equipment to exacting tolerances.

Thermal performance: CLT’s thermal performance is related to panel thickness. Thicker panels require less insulation, and because panels are solid, there is little potential for airflow through the panel system. As a result, interior temperatures can be maintained with as little as one-third the amount of energy otherwise required for cooling or heating.

Cost-effectiveness: Even without considering the added benefits of faster construction time (up to 25% less time and up to 50% less labor) and lower foundation costs, CLT compares favorably to certain concrete, masonry, and steel building alternatives. According to a 2010 study by FPInnovations, CLT was 15% lower for mid-rise residential, 15 to 50% cheaper for mid-rise non-residential and 25% cheaper for low-rise commercial structures.

Less waste: Because CLT panels are custom manufactured for particular building projects, they generate little or no job site waste generated. Additionally, fabrication scraps, if created, can be used for other architectural elements such as stairs, or as biofuel.

Environmental advantages: Aside from superior thermal performance that saves building operators money on their heating bill, CLT is also valued because its production has a lower environmental footprint than the manufacturing of other construction alternatives, including the production of less air and water pollution and the generation of less CO2. The environmental case for CLT is enhanced as it acts to sequester carbon.

Fire protection: The thick cross-section of CLT panels provides superior fire resistance because panels char slowly. Once charred, the panels are protected from further degradation.

Seismic performance: Thanks to its dimensional stability and rigidity, CLT performs well under seismic stresses. Extensive testing has determined that CLT panels hold up exceptionally well with no deformation, particularly in multi-story applications.

What is the Outlook for CLT?

While mass timber is considered a more sustainable building material than steel or concrete, its uptake until recently has been limited due to negative perceptions regarding its strength and cost as well as building code restrictions that have limited its use in mass-market building types.

However, as one recent report notes, as the price of mass timber products continues to fall and local jurisdictions improve their code approval processes, the wood material is anticipated to become a more viable everyday choice for building commercial office buildings.

According to The Economist, mass timber is expected to account for US$1.4bn of the US$14trn global construction industry by 2025 and 0.5% of new urban buildings by 2050. With concerted investment in global manufacturing capacity and building projects for mass timber, however, The Economist believes that the share of the construction market could rise exponentially by 2050, capturing trillions in value.

Resources:

Canada CLT Handbook, 2019 Edition

Solid Advantages

U.S. CLT Handbook

Transparent wood product

Windows to Wearables: Innovation in Wood Products

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2020/10/01/transparent-wood-could-be-window-future

While wood products have been used by humanity for millennia, researchers are recently finding new and exciting ways that the material can be used to promote sustainability. The forest products sector welcomes these exciting new opportunities for wood products, particularly for its woody residuals such as sawdust, bark, and chips. Woody residuals are generated from tree harvest tops and branches, woodlot thinnings, low-grade logs, sawmill activities, and the chipping of recycled wood, including end-of-life pallet material.

Woody residuals are used for various purposes, including mulch, soil amendments, playground surface material, boiler fuel, pellets, as well as fiber for pulp and structural panels such as OSB. Demand in many market segments is healthy. In some cases, in fact, it is booming! COVID-19 helped provide a “turbo boost” for wood residual products associated with consumers such aslandscaping mulch and home heating pellets as people have been spending more time at home and investing in home improvement projects.

Other market segments can be more fickle. One of the key challenges faced by wood product producers is that wood fiber is not economically feasible to ship great distances due to its low value. A common rule of thumb is that wood chips and sawdust are not profitable to ship more than 100 miles.

For this reason, wood fiber markets tend to be highly localized, depending upon the local demand for fiber products. If wood producers in an area are dependent upon a large local consumer of residuals such as a pulp and paper plant, and the local source is lost, it can leave businesses scrambling to find an outlet.

One particular challenge has been the closure of pulp and paper plants. In the case of the newsprint market, we are witnessing a decline in demand as people increasingly embrace digital media. In 2019, the global demand fornewsprint plunged 13% from the previous year. In 2020, thedemand for newsprint in Europe dropped by a whopping 20.5%.

Given the significance of that decline, it will be important for the forest sector to identify new markets for its woody residuals. One area of active research and investment is in bioproducts, a fast-growing category of products that include biochemicals, biomaterials, and bioenergy.

Wood Insulation for Buildings

Wood fiber home insulation is a $700 million market in Europe, supported by 15 production plants and offering insulation products with a much lower carbon footprint than alternatives. While the product line has a proven track record in Europe dating back over 15 years, it has not been produced in the U.S. That situation is about to change, with a new wood fiber insulation plant scheduled to begin production in 2022.

Equipment for the new Maine production plant has arrived from Germany. The facility, which will support up to 130 employees when at full production, is utilizing a shuttered pulp and paper plant. It will use woody residuals as feedstock, providing a valuable market for that material.

The plant will produce three products, including insulated board, batt, and loose-fill wood fiber. According to the manufacturer, the carbon footprint of the wood insulated board is four times better than that of foam plastic boards and seven times better than mineral wool board, its main competitors. For batt, the carbon footprint is five times better than fiberglass and seven times better than mineral wool. Other beneficial features of note are that the products don’t trap moisture, and they can be recycled without specialized equipment. They are also non-toxic and biodegradable.

Wood Fiber Clothing

A company based in Finland has been developing more sustainable alternatives to fiber materials such as cotton and rayon that rely on the use of chemicals in processing, which in turn can lead to water pollution and employee health issues.

The company’s production process turns wood material, including biomass, into a material called micro fibrillated cellulose, which in turn can be manufactured into eco-friendly clothing. The only production byproduct is evaporated water, and its process consumes a much smaller amount than would be required for cotton production. The company recently entered a 50-50 joint venture to build a $61 million plant to produce clothing fabric from wood pulp, scheduled to open in 2022.

Transparent Wood

Glass is commonly used for windows, but experts note that it comes at a significant economic and environmental cost. Regulating building temperatures accounts for 14% of primary energy consumption in the U.S., and one-quarter of this energy is lost through inefficient glass windows in cold weather.

Transparent wood windows, on the other hand, boast a thermal conductivity more than five times lower than glass, and toughness three times greater than glass. Earlier attempts to make transparent wood involved removing lignin through the use of toxic chemicals and high temperature, but it was an expensive product and the resulting product was brittle.

Researchers have developed a new cheap and effective method to produce transparent wood, however. A thin veneer of rotary cut wood can be treated with a solution of hydrogen peroxide, and after an hour in the sun or under a UV lamp, the peroxide bleaches out the color but leaving the lignin intact and the wood turned transparent. While this technology has yet to commercialized, the researchers feel it holds great potential as a new building material.

Research continues in the development of cellulose-based innovations that provide a lower carbon footprint than existing products, without compromising performance. Some of these products offer the potential to better utilize woody residuals while underscoring the importance of our forest resource.

milled wood blocks

Find Out More About the Forest Products Industry

forest products-milled wood blocks

From the structures we call home, to the colored mulch in our flower bed, to the wooden pallets that deliver the goods we rely on, products from grown forests play a crucial role in our lives.

So exactly what are forest products? Simply stated, forest products are materials derived from trees that are used for commercial use or consumer consumption. When most of us think about forest products, we typically focus on wood products such as lumber, structural panels, and paper.

Forest products include a range of non-timber items such as fruit, nuts, seeds, sap, and oil. In this installment of the Nature’s Packaging blog, however, we turn our attention to forest products that are derived from wood, and the wood-based forest products industry.

The Forest Products Industry

The forest products industry is an important contributor to both the Canadian and U.S. economies. It accounts for around 1.5% of the U.S. economy and contributes about 5% of the nation’s total manufacturing output. Regionally, it can be very significant. Forest products ranks as one of the top three contributors in some southern states. Canada’s forest sector contributed $23.9 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2019 or about 1.4%.

The forest industry comprises three main subsectors:

  • solid wood products manufacturing
  • pulp and paper
  • forestry and logging

Solid wood products manufacturing includes primary activities such as lumber and structural panels, as well as secondary products such as millwork, engineered wood products and wood packaging.

The pulp and paper product manufacturing subsector produces a wealth of products, covering everything from newsprint and household tissues to dissolving pulp for rayon production.

The forestry and logging subsector spans field operations and timber harvesting, including logging and transportation to mills.

Tree Harvest for Various Products

The harvest of trees generates three types of material, including sawtimber (including chip-n-saw), pulpwood, and finally harvest slash. Sawtimber, used to make products such as lumber and veneer, is typically most desirable. This is followed by pulpwood. Slash refers to the treetops, limbs, and other woody material left behind after logging takes place. The amount of slash generated is influenced by variables such as the size and quality of the harvested trees.

In the US South, for example, pine trees usually mature between 25 and 40 years, with thinning operations undertaken at 12-15 years and then again at 18-22 years, allowing trees the space they need to grow to maturity. As trees become larger, they become more valuable on a per-ton basis. Forest owners, therefore, are motivated to maximize their yield of mature timber.

Logs of a larger diameter are usually categorized as sawlogs, while those of a smaller diameter are considered pulpwood. Smaller diameter trees may be classified as unmerchantable. According to Forest2Market, plantation pine logs can be designated as follows:

  • 5”-7” diameter at breast height (DBH) – pulpwood
  • 8”-11” DBH – chip-n-saw
  • 12”+ DBH – sawtimber

Wood-based Forest Products

Natural Resources Canada suggests that forest products can be categorized into four segments: solid wood products (including lumber and structural panels), wood pulp, paper products (including newsprint, printing, and writing paper), and bioproducts (e.g. biofuels, biochemical, bioplastics) derived from biomass.

Lumber refers to harvested timber that is milled into products such as dimension lumber, and boards. Softwood dimension lumber is used mostly for framing purposes in residential construction. Lower-grade material is typically used for wood packaging products such as pallets. Logs may also be peeled from the outside in to create veneer. Veneer can be glued into layers or plies to make plywood. Other structural board products include oriented strandboard (OSB) and fiberboard. Cross laminated timber, constructed from glued layers of solid wood, is becoming increasingly popular.

Wood pulp is the term for wood fiber that has been reduced chemically or mechanically to pulp for use in the manufacture of paper and other products. Pulp can be derived from virgin forest harvest material such as pulpwood as well as from wood processing residuals. Pulp is used as an intermediate product to produce paper, packaging, hygiene, and textile products.

Biomass is generated from a variety of sources, including the branches and tops of trees after harvest, forest thinning and salvage, wood products manufacturing residuals and wood products recycling. Biomass has been a substantial energy source for the pulp and paper industry. Biomass is also used for a variety of other uses, including pulp feedstock, pellets, structural board, animal bedding, soil amendments, landscaping mulches and more.

There are also exciting new opportunities for bioproducts such as biochemicals and biomaterials. According to Natural Resources Canada, the growth potential and projected market size for emerging bioproducts are much greater than for traditional forest products combined, including pulp, lumber and newsprint.

Forest products sourced from sustainable North American forests are critical to our daily lives. In the future, there is also the exciting potential for new and emerging forest products to take center stage, further accentuating the importance of timber in our everyday lives.

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