Bertrand CharrierProfessor at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour, Head of team at the Mont-de-Marsan-based French Institute of Analytical Sciences and Physical Chemistry for the Environment and Materials (IPREM) and Coordinator of XYLOMAT, a national network
"For thousands of years, wood has provided humans with energy, building material, exudates and resins, which are increasingly used for “green chemistry”. With climate action growing worldwide, wood’s ability to capture carbon has revived its popularity."
Wood: A Source of Energy and the Basis of Green Chemistry
Wood was one of the first materials used by humans in prehistoric times for heating, hunting, making weapons and building homes. It then provided the first molecules for green chemistry. The Egyptians and other inhabitants of the Mediterranean region already knew how to produce plant-based tar 2,000 to 3,000 years ago using the exudate of resinous trees such as pines and firs. This substance, mixed with plant fibers, could be used to waterproof hulls of boats as part of the caulking process. Traces of plant-based resins have been found on ancient ceramics and amphorae, which they helped waterproof.
Craftsmen quickly discovered that when they distilled pine resin, it resulted in a solid, odorless product (rosin) and a volatile, odorous product (turpentine). Mixing the rosin with linseed oil created varnishes of such resistance, flexibility and plasticity that Stradivarius, the famous violin maker of Cremona, used it on his violins. His instruments have more than stood the test of time, as they generally have not changed after 300 years. Turpentine quickly made its mark as a highly effective solvent for grease and wax. The lacquer that has long been used in Asia is also made from resin and the sap of various shrubs, such as acacia gum.
From the mid-18th century onward, wood was the fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... of the Industrial Revolution, before the widespread use of coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... . It powered the steam boiler furnaces and provided the structure for the first machines, cars and planes. It also gave rise to the chemistry industry. Wood was such an indispensable raw material that it was overexploited, and at the beginning of the 19th century people realized that forests were disappearing. To protect this resource in France, a tree-planting policy was reintroduced 150 years after being launched by statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert to secure supplies of naval timber. Other fuels were then called on to make up the shortfall. This ushered in the coal era followed by the age of oil, with all the polymer and plastic applications that came with it.
The Strong Comeback of Wood
Today, we are seeing a revival of wood due to its renewable nature, which makes it valuable in containing the CO2See Carbon Dioxid emissions of fossil fuels and therefore in fighting global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change... .
Twenty-first century technologies have made it possible to perfect all the various uses made of wood over the previous centuries. They have helped us understand the very complex chemical reactions between rosin and linseed oil, for example. Projects are now underway to produce premium varnishes. Of course, they will be more expensive than those made from oil, but they will also be much more effective from both a technical and an environmental perspective.
The need for second-generation biofuelA fuel produced from plant or animal matter. There are currently two types of biofuel... , which are not produced from food crops, has led to new research into wood use. A pilot plant in Bazancourt in the east of France has been working in this area since 2008 as part of the Futurol project.
The paper industry, which is still a big user of wood, was also able to gradually isolate very pure cellulose fiber. The processing segment, using the sulfite process, can manufacture many derivative products, from explosives such as nitrocellulose to emulsifiers for food (e.g., ice cream) and even excipients for drugs. In France’s Landes region, there is a plant owned by the Rayonier paper group, which is now the global leader in the sector.
It should be noted that industrial paper mills are increasingly turning toward this biorefinery and are therefore no longer discarding by-products. In particular, they can retrieve the tannins, which are used in the leather and ink industries, and tall oil, which is used in the pharmaceutical, chemical, cosmetic and other industries.
I won’t go into the details of the other positive factors that may encourage the return of wood or cardboard, like reduced use of plastics in certain products (cutlery and plates) or new architectural designs that avoid using cement.
An Industry Creating Jobs
The rebirth of this industry has two interesting features:
- It has all the technology it needs to produce in large quantities without threatening our forests. People have also formed the habit of replanting trees after logging. There are currently 16 million hectares of forest area in France – double that of the early 19th century. Of course, this isn’t the case everywhere in the world.
- The industry represents almost 400,000 jobs in France. There is a large network of training centers all across the country, including three engineering schools in Nantes, Épinal and Cluny and many great vocational high schools evenly spread throughout the various regions.
Nevertheless, the industry is struggling to attract young people. There are too many misconceptions about wood trades, even though they are becoming increasingly technological and the career opportunities are booming.
Bertrand Charrier is a Professor at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour. He heads a team at the Mont-de-Marsan-based French Institute of Analytical Sciences and Physical Chemistry for the Environment and Materials (IPREM) – a joint research unit between the university and the CNRS. He is also coordinator of XYLOMAT, a national network that brings together various players for R&D projects, project development and a range of services related to bio-based materials.