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Technology & Innovation

Female inventor creates ‘Nanowood’ — a material that could (really) save the planet

With sustainable production, you could see houses, skyscrapers, and all kinds of things made of nanowood.
Tian Li, left, and Liangbing Hu, right, holding nanowood (Hua Xie / University of Maryland)

Tian Li, a post-doc student at the University of Maryland, has created a new material that could massively reduce waste on this planet. Created with researcher Liangbing Hu, this ‘nanowood’ acts like biological styrofoam and can be used in everything from drink containers to insulation. 

‘Nanowood’ is wood without lignin, the ingredient in wood that makes it brown and rigid. Before you start thinking  — nanowood can be developed from fast-growing lighter woods, like balsa wood, while slower-growing trees would be left alone. Nanowood under 1mm in thickness can be folded and bent and thus can easily be used as cost-effective insulation, or even as a replacement for styrofoam cups which take 500+ years to biodegrade. It’s also 30x stronger than styrofoam and can insulate better than silica aerogel by a whole 10ºF.  

According to the LA Times

…[the team] has been probing the properties of nanocellulose, nanometer-scale versions of cellulose, the tough carbohydrate in the cell walls of plants that allows tree trunks to grow strong and tall. At these incredibly small scales, cellulose fibers can take on remarkable characteristics, including a strength-to-weight ratio that’s about eight times that of steel.

The key is mostly in the design. As the University of Maryland states:

Wood “conducts” heat along the channels that were used when the tree was alive to shuttle water and nutrients from roots to leaves.  However, heat trying to cross the wood grain is blocked.  With the wood oriented in the right direction, heat could be blocked or transmitted as the designer desires.

Without speaking in hyperbole, this genuinely could be the building material of the future. With sustainable production, you could see houses, skyscrapers, and all kinds of things made of nanowood. 


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