Woman in red rayon dress

A dress made from wood fibers? Yes. Rayon.

Rayon was invented in the mid-1800s and was manufactured as a fabric in the US starting in 1911. It was called “artificial silk” until 1924, when the name rayon was adopted. Today, rayon is often used to make clothing, such as this dress.

The cellulose fibers used to make rayon are produced in a process similar to those used to make paper. Hardwood or softwood logs are debarked and chipped and the chips are broken down mechanically or chemically to separate out the cellulose fibers. In addition to cellulose, wood also contains hemicellulose, a minor ingredient in paper, as well as in waxes, oleoresins, and ethanol; and lignin, which is used for making glues, biofuels, and other chemicals. Together, these three elements of wood are called lignocellulose, or lignocellulosic biomass, which is the most the most abundant organic substance on Earth.

In recent years, scientists have discovered some interesting uses for cellulose, especially when the fibers are broken down to much smaller particles, called nanocellullose or cellulose nanomaterials (CNs). Research by the US Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), Purdue University, and Oregon State University has shown that the addition of CNs to cement makes concrete stronger. This can have a positive climate impact: Because less concrete is required to provide the same strength, less carbon dioxide is emitted during the production of cement, which accounts for roughly 8 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions.

Concrete workers

Nanocellulose-infused concrete looks and acts like traditional concrete, but has improved properties. Photo courtesy Michael Goergen, vice president at U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.

Another promising use of CNs is in producing flexible transparent films that serve as a platform for electronic circuits—flexible electronics. According to FPL scientists, CNs can be made into a base for recyclable electronic circuits, circuits that can be used in flexible cell phones and displays, for example, and in solar panels that can bend.

Batteries made in part from wood? Stora Enso, a major forest products company, and battery producer Northvolt, are working to use lignin in batteries “for applications from mobility to stationary energy storage” that will have a lower carbon footprint [and lower overall eco-footprint) than traditional batteries.

And according to Scientific American, very smart people have developed a method for making “A new disposable battery [that] is made of paper and other sustainable materials and is activated with a few drops of water.” Amazing!

CNs have a wide range of other applications, from car parts to semiconductors.

Whether it’s lumber, paper, rayon, or futuristic products made from CNs, all of these products are made from a sustainable, renewable forest resource: wood.


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