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Strong as wood. Clear as glass.

What if we could use transparent wood instead? Developed by Swedish researchers, the affordable natural material could soon be put to all-around use as a solid substitute for glass. At present, we don’t just use wood as a sustainable source of energy; it’s also a widely available, solid natural building material. This natural resource could now be made even more versatile by adding an extra functional feature: transparency. Researchers from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm have succeeded in developing see-through wood.

Turning white cotton into transparent wood is no witchcraft

To make this happen, the Swedish team of researchers uses a chemical trick. They extract the main component – lignin – from the finely cut wood. Lignin not only gives the pulp fibres stability, it also absorbs light and therefore impedes transparency. Once the lignin is removed, all that remains is a white, cotton-like wooden frame.

This frame is impregnated with liquid polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), which hardens the wood fibres. PMMA is a synthetic material similar to glass – better known as acrylic glass or Plexiglas. The impregnation process causes the light refraction index to change, thereby creating a robust wooden panel with a translucency value of 85%, similar to frosted glass. The typical structure of the wood remains unchanged through the process.

Affordable and stylish: natural glass for versatile use

Not only could the wooden panes be used as windows to round off the sustainable building concept for log cabins; they could be generally used as an affordable material for light-permeable façades. The semi-transparent natural glass could also be an exciting design element for furniture or even flooring and staircases indoors. For photovoltaic systems, meanwhile, the shatter-proof window would create the ideal cover to protect solar panels from hail and other storm damage.

Transparent wood

Source: KTH Royal Insitute of Technology, Peter Larsson

Environmentally friendly and affordable: Wood as an attractive natural material

Although the wood-based glass is much more environmentally friendly than similar solid variants stemming from fossil resources, it still has one minor flaw. The PMMA used for the manufacturing process is made from crude oil, which prevents the wooden glass from being fully recyclable. This issue could, however, be resolved by the French company Altuglas, which has already managed to develop a new type of Plexiglas consisting of 50% renewable raw materials.

Whether it’s used as a storm-resistant glass façade, a sturdy window pane, or a protective cover for solar panels, transparent wood harbours a great deal of potential and would be a sustainable and affordable alternative to synthetic glass. So football in the garden wouldn’t need to end in a broken window in the future.

Would you choose to use natural wooden glass in your future building or renovation projects? We look forward to hearing your opinion.

Building Technology Sustainability

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