The material could be a competitor to steel or titanium alloys


Luthiers, string students and players might benefit from the research of engineers at the University of Maryland, who have found a way to make wood more than ten times stronger and tougher than before. 

The process involves removing the wood’s lignin, the part of the wood that makes it rigid and brown in colour. This is compressed under heat, at about 150 F, which causes the cellulose fibers to become tightly packed and makes the wood five times thinner than its original size. Defects such as knots and holes are crushed together, before the process is completed with a coat of paint.

The result ‘could be a competitor to steel or even titanium alloys, it is so strong and durable,’ according to Liangbing Hu, the leader of the team that did the research.  ‘It is comparable to carbon fibre, but much less expensive,’ he told University of Maryland Right Now. 

‘It is both strong and tough, which is a combination not usually found in nature,’ Teng Li, co-leader of the team, told the same publication. ‘It is as strong as steel, but six times lighter. It takes 10 times more energy to fracture than natural wood. It can even be bent and moulded at the beginning of the process.’

The team compared the new wood material and natural wood by shooting bullet-like projectiles at them. The projectile blew straight through the natural wood but was stopped partway through the treated wood.

‘The paper provides a highly promising route to the design of light weight high performance structural materials, with tremendous potential for a broad range of applications where high strength, large toughness and superior ballistic resistance are desired, ’ said Dr. Huajian Gao, a professor at Brown University, who was not involved in the study. ‘It is particularly exciting to note that the method is versatile for various species of wood and fairly easy to implement.’

For less-than-careful string players looking for a tougher kind of instrument, that might be just what is needed.