Wooden steps down steep cliff
Will the latest timber ‘pretender’ be able to stand up to the heat like these natural hardwood steps in Australia’s Kings Canyon? Photo ©Tony Neilson

Artificial timber better than the real thing?

A major selling point for timber over steel in a fire situation has been that it chars and doesn’t ‘melt’. Now there’s new competition on the block.

There is a long line of wannabe wood products of questionable quality out there, but this one sounds interesting. 

Promoted as being ‘as strong as the real thing, and it won’t catch fire’, this new synthetic wood is expected to make a big impact when it gets a brand name and goes into commercial production.

Plastic-wood composites have long been popular for decks and fences that don’t require sanding, staining and painting. But they typically aren’t as strong as natural wood and can be even more prone to catching fire. 

Now, Science Advances magazine reports that researchers have created a synthetic wood that matches natural wood’s strength and is flame resistant.

Synthetic crystallites

Lignin is a key component of wood. It is a natural polymer with a weblike structure that binds tiny crystallites of another component called cellulose. 

The new composites replace lignin with a synthetic polymer version called resol, which has a similar weblike structure. Researchers have used resol to bind a variety of different synthetic crystallites into a family of different synthetic woods.

As the composites cure, they adopt a cell-like structure that looks like that of natural wood. This helps the materials resist compression and adds strength. 

Plastic wood boardwalk
Wood substitutes have had strong market growth for outdoor applications. Photo: ©istock

Corrosion resistance

“Our artificial woods exhibit not only good controllability in microstructures but also comparable mechanical properties with those of natural wood,” the developers say. “And in contrast to natural wood, they demonstrate preferable corrosion resistance to humidity and acid with no decrease in mechanical properties, as well as much better thermal insulation and fire retardancy.”

Sounds pretty impressive if you are into artificial wood. I still prefer the real thing – sustainably grown and harvested, of course.

©Natural Images 2018

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©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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