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It's a veritable hack into the structure of wood to make it stronger: A team of engineers led by professors Liangbing Hu and Teng Li at the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park has developed a wood treatment process that reportedly can make wood 12 times stronger and 10 times tougher than natural, untreated wood. The team's research was published in the journal Nature on February 7.

The process involves removing the wood’s lignin, or the component that makes the wood rigid, and compressing it at 150 degrees F. Under this pressure, the wood’s cellulose fibers become very tightly packed, creating very strong hydrogen bonds.

“It is as strong as steel, but six times lighter. It takes 10 times more energy to fracture than natural wood. It can even be bent and molded at the beginning of the process,” says Li.

“This could be a competitor to steel or even titanium alloys, it is so strong and durable. It’s also comparable to carbon fiber, but much less expensive,” says Hu.

Hu’s team has produced a variety of nanocellulose-based emerging technologies in the past, including batteries and supercapacitors made from wood and leaves. These technologies are being commercialized through Inventwood, a UMD spin-off company.

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