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Research helping to understand the role of water in wood

19 January 2011

Research helping to understand the role of water in wood

Research from Victoria University into the underlying structure of trees could have an impact on how wood is used in construction.

Dr Stefan Hill, who graduated with a PhD in Chemistry from Victoria in December, analysed what gives wood strength and how water, and subsequent drying, affects its structure.

“Water has an incredible influence on wood. When you dry wood for example, it becomes three times as stiff,” he says.

“Although there’s been research on drying wood worldwide, we don’t have very good knowledge of where water is deep down in wood. Hopefully this research will help in understanding the best way of drying wood.”

He conducted his research part-time while working at Scion, a Crown Research Institute that undertakes research, science and technology development in forestry, wood products, biomaterials and bioenergy.

The opportunity to work under Professor Sir Paul Callaghan at Victoria was a major drawcard says Dr Hill, whose other supervisors were Scion’s Dr Roger Newman and Dr Robert Franich.

“I was incredibly privileged to work with Professor Callaghan and learn from his expertise in nuclear magnetic resonance and nanotechnology,” he says.

Dr Hill says his research—“essentially fundamental chemistry”—examined the makeup of a tree’s structure.

“I looked at the nanostructure of a tree—the structure at the molecular level. Nature has successfully evolved the cell wall of wood over millions of years, giving the living tree the strength and flexibility to cope with natural forces.

“A tree stands strong despite years and years of sun, wind and rain, in conditions and for lengths of time in which many manmade materials would fail.”

He found that water molecules in the cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin polymers of cell walls have an important structural and mechanical role in the dynamics of the cell wall. These functions also explain the role of water in changing the properties of wood when it is used as building material or in composite products.

“Drying and rewetting wood also influences the nanostructure,” says Dr Hill whose research will be introduced into computer modelling for predicting properties of wood before trees are cut down.


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