The transparent wood that could replace glass

The transparent wood that could replace glass

Until now, glass has held a firm monopoly on our windows. It has its problems; shattering easily and letting a lot of energy leak into or out of a building, but until recently it has been the best solution for the purpose it has been used; our looking-glass outside from our buildings.

But this could all change very soon; windows (and much more) could be made from transparent, renewable wood.

A team of engineers at the University of Maryland have developed a patented process to turn wood translucent, making it more durable and giving it enhanced strength.

Fully processed, clarified wood gets soaked in a glue-like epoxy that makes it very hard and clear. This turns the porous tubes of cellulose in wood — which normally suck water up toward leaves and pull sugars down toward roots — into highly efficient light diffusers. And because this "glass" is made of wood, it's also a better insulator against heat.

Wood is a strong and versatile building material, but it too has its faults: it rots, gets eaten by bugs, and a plank of wood definitely used to be anything but see-through. However, using a two-step process, engineers at the University of Maryland, College Park stripped away the planks tan and brown colour and made it clear. The see-through wood, which they say is stronger and a better insulator than glass, and more biodegradable than plastic, could one day be used in windows, tables and other building supplies.

The wood could be used for privacy windows, letting light in but maintaining a level of semi-transparency. But it may be most useful as solar panels; according to a study detailing the research, the construction sector accounts for "around thirty to forty percent" of total energy consumption.

And, of course, it is very important to reduce energy consumption in the building sector. Solar energy is attractive in this context since it is free, inexhaustible, and clean. Light-transmitting buildings can also contribute to reduced demand, since artificial light can be partially replaced by natural light.

Unfortunately, at present, these see-through tree-houses are still in development, their biggest issue being size. So far the largest blocks the team has turned clear measured at about the size of your hand, with thicknesses ranging from paper-thin to a centimetre wide. The team are still working to scale up their bench-top work to a manufacturing level.

If the team can accomplish that there's no shortage of applications, from windows and building materials to smaller, precise, optical equipment that's normally made from glass or plastic.

Are you looking forward to green, shatterproof privacy windows? Let us know in the comments of our LinkedIn post.

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