HEALTH 10th May 2018

Good Wood:
Using cellulose and lignin to
usher in a bio-economy

By

‘Everything you can produce based upon oil, you can also produce based upon wood….

Göran Persson, former prime minister of Sweden, speaking on BBC four’s podcast ‘Costing the Earth’.

When I first heard first those words, my response was one part excitement mixed with two parts confusion. Is it possible for wood to replace carbon-based fossil fuels? Are we at the precipice of a new industrial revolution? Can our most everyday needs: fuel, clothing, and electronics, be met by trees?  In short, yes.

Wood, it seems, is the gateway to a bio-economy: one based on trees and plants instead of fossil fuels.

Wood is remarkably versatile when it’s broken down into its constituent parts: cellulose and lignin. Cellulose is a plant-based fiber which can act as a binding agent, and lignin is an organic binding substance. Both are extracted from grinding up pieces of wood and can be used in a number of ways.

IN FABRICS

In textiles, cellulose (known as viscose) is used to give fabric its soft feel. And though cellulose is far superior to nylon, only 6% of fabrics are made this way. Alarmingly, 65% come from plastic.

IN COSMETICS

Eye creams, lipsticks, foundations and face creams rely on chemicals to stabilize them. Bad news right? Using cellulose as a binding agent can help address the health concerns associated with synthetic binders like Parabens, Petrolatum and Sodium Lauryl – all of which bear cancer containing properties.

IN FIXING YOUR BROKEN BONES

Believe it or not, you can fix a broken arm with wood!

Stem cell therapy has come into prominence as an alternative to surgery for fractures and broken bones. Cellulose lays the foundations for stem cells to work their magic.

IN CAR FUEL

In much the same way oil refineries produce the gas that fuels your car, a wood refinery can extract lignin which is the most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth. The key challenge is Lignin’s resistance to conversion into car fuel. Significant time and effort in R&D is required.

THE FUTURE

In countries like Sweden and Finland where forestry covers 70% of the mainland, it is possible to use trees as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels and manufacturing processes. On the other hand, in countries like the U.K, where only 15% of the land is made up of trees, a scarcity argument prevails.

If we are to usher in a wood-based economy, legislation is required to ensure we replant new trees. Moreover, the geopolitical impact of reshaping our economy away from fossil fuels is arguably the biggest challenge facing wood.

As always, pushing for health.