This transparent wood could replace glass windows

A sheet of transparent new material in a University of Maryland laboratory looks like it’s plastic. But it’s actually wood – and it could eventually be used to make energy efficient windows or even see-through buildings.

“Compared to glass, wood has a lower thermal conductivity and is lighter, stronger and more environmentally friendly,” says Liangbing Hu, professor of materials science at the University of Maryland and one of the authors of a new material study. The idea is to use the material in buildings. For example, with a window made of transparent wood instead of glass, a building would require less energy for heating and cooling. Due to the structure of the wood, the windows could also reduce glare from the sun while letting in natural light.

Researchers have experimented with transparent wood in the past, but the new method is more sustainable. Other methods usually soak the wood in a chemical compound called sodium chlorite to remove lignin, part of the wood that gives it structure. However, this can weaken the wood and create waste that is difficult to recycle. Hu and his team have optimized the process so that the lignin is not completely removed. By brushing hydrogen peroxide over the wood and leaving it under UV light, they only remove the parts of the lignin that give it color. The result is transparent wood that can be coated with epoxy resin.

This is just one of many ways that scientists and engineers are rethinking how we can use this renewable resource in construction. Skyscrapers made entirely of wood are becoming increasingly popular in cities around the world. And scientists recently discovered a technique that allows wood to be grown in a laboratory. This opens up the possibility of using wood without having to fell a forest.

The transparent wood is 50% stronger than the previous transparent wood and can even be used to build load-bearing walls in a building. It could potentially be used in other ways, such as layers used in solar cells. A new spin-off company called InventWood is working on commercializing the technology.

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