Woodworking is a field of not only practicality and usefulness, but great artistic beauty as well. Many carpenters and woodworkers have trained themselves to use not only traditional and well-established tools in their pursuit of a perfect end product, but also modern, technologically advanced techniques on the cutting edge. As a kid, I loved wandering into my grandpa’s work area — the air thick with turpentine and sawdust, looking at (but not touching!) the variety of saws, hammers, and measuring tapes he used on various projects. It was always exciting to see a nondescript piece of lumber slowly and carefully shaped into a cabinet, dresser, or chair.
One group of researchers is applying that same, meticulous care to woodworking, but on a much smaller scale. Ashley Beckwith, Jeffrey Borenstein, and Luis Velásquez-García are the MIT-based team behind exciting new research on sustainability and the future of plant fiber production. Similar to the lab-grown meat now available in some parts of the world, the team is researching ways to grow wood-like structures in the lab, without the need for traditional farming — no soil or sunlight needed!
In their paper, submitted to the Journal of Cleaner Production, the team calls this “a new approach to plant-based biomaterial production that substantially lessens or altogether eliminates inefficiencies in the agricultural and pre-processing stages.” Put simply, the team has been able to coax the leaves of the zinnia flower into growing wood-like cells. More impressively, this growth can be controlled to produce only what is necessary for production and construction — imagine a tree with no roots, leaves, twigs, or bark that need to be shaved away and wasted on its way to the lumber yard. This approach would “improve yields while reducing plant waste and competition for arable land.”
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Their focus may be microscopic for now, but the issues the team is confronting are worldwide: “plant-based products are often lauded for their renewability,” the paper notes, “but current rates of consumption are unsustainable.” Lab-grown lumber could be one of several necessary tools in the fight against deforestation and climate change.
While traditionalists may balk at the unfamiliar process, the team steadfastly maintains that the technology may have the potential to be “competitive with standard production techniques.” A further upside is the ability to preserve forested, biodiverse land and environments without harming businesses that rely on lumber.
More testing and development needs to be done before this is implemented outside of the lab, but the team is optimistic. Researchers at the forefront of projects like this are part of a long, ancient tradition — like the carpenter who refines the pins and slots of a dovetail joint until they’re perfectly locked, these scientists are creating tools that work in harmony with the earth to create something beautiful.Whizzco