I Can’t Believe It’s Not Wood

Thanks to Brilliant for supporting this whole week of SciShow! Go to Brilliant.org/SciShow to learn more. {♫Intro♫} You can probably spot fake wood a mile away. Something about the grain, the texture, the consistency… it’s all wrong. And you might wonder why we even bother trying. I mean, wood literally grows on trees. But we have some good reasons for wanting to make fake wood — and some good reasons why it’s really hard to do. One reason we want fake wood is saving our forests. The thinking is if we can make something that looks like wood and has its properties, we don’t have to keep cutting down actual trees. Plus, wood has an incredibly complex architecture that makes it light yet strong — and this has actually inspired materials scientists to try copying that structure for new lightweight materials. But it’s not actually that easy. Scientists have been having a tough time making artificial wood. The main reason is because wood has a pretty unique structure. You can see and feel the grain, the knots — nothing else really has that. But if you put wood under a microscope, it gets even weirder. You’ll see this sort of scaffolding that
looks like a bunch of tubes squished together. These tubes are actually the tree’s cells,
meant to channel water throughout the plant. Those cells’ walls are, in turn, made of
cellulose fibers embedded in a blob of hemicellulose and lignin — all chemicals that contribute
to a fibrous, rigid structure. And those cellulose fibers aren’t just tossed
willy nilly into the tree, either. They’re oriented to match the direction
of the tree or branch they’re on. This means that the tree’s properties are
anisotropic: they’re different in different directions. For example, thanks to those aligned bundles
of cellulose fibers, trees are stronger across the grain rather than along it. If you try to chop a tree horizontally, lumberjack-style,
these super-strong cellulose fibers will bear the brunt of the force and make it hard to
chop. But if you try to cut wood vertically, you’ll
be hitting the not-as-strong lignin-hemicellulose matrix — which happens to be much easier
to break. This complexity explains other things, too. Like why some woods can be 1000 times stiffer
than others, since their microstructures and even their exact compositions can be vastly
different. This complexity also means that wood, and
all its awesome properties, are super hard to mimic. There has been at least one attempt in the
scientific literature. A 2018 paper published in Science Advances
described a way of making artificial wood using special water-soluble polymers frozen
in liquid nitrogen and alcohol to create a desired configuration. Then they removed the solvents to lock-in
that configuration, and heated the whole thing to make it harden. The authors found that by varying the cooling
rate, they could fine-tune the properties of their fake wood. And some of those had similar properties to
real wood, like how much they could be compressed. They even looked similar to real wood, with
some advantages like being more resistant to flames. These results do seem promising. But it’s important to note that this was
done entirely inside a lab with a homemade contraption. This probably won’t translate easily to
a much larger scale, so you will likely not see these artificial woods in stores anytime
soon. There are other methods scientists could use
to make wood-like structures, but they have similar drawbacks. As a result, many commercial attempts at making
artificial wood only focus on replicating a couple key properties. And that inability to mimic all the properties
of wood rather than just one or two means that fake wood won’t fool us — for now,
at least. Many wood substitutes, for example, are made
by mixing actual wood byproducts like wood flour with some sort of plastic or adhesive. That’s basically really fine sawdust, not
a gluten-free cupcake ingredient. You’ve probably seen these wood-plastic
composites in decks or lining your door. Since these composites are made of, well,
wood and plastic, they very often have properties that lie in between those of their constituent
materials. So they are usually less stiff than solid
wood but more rigid than plastic — in general, anyway. And plastic here actually gives the material
another advantage: it won’t absorb as much moisture, so it’s less vulnerable to rot. But what about products that don’t have
any wood at all? One material that’s gained traction as a
wood alternative is something that’s used as trims for houses called cellular PVC. Cellular PVC is made by blowing bubbles through
melted plastic and other additives to form a solid material with little bubble-like holes
throughout it, giving it more structure at a microscopic level — like real wood. But while that makes cellular PVC more lightweight,
it just isn’t like wood. There are still some key differences. And even if it’s more durable than wood,
this plastic substitute certainly doesn’t feel or look like wood. Unless, of course, you do a fancy paint job
— which can help with the looks, but that’s about the extent of it. So even if wood’s been around a while, we’re
still working on ways to improve on nature’s original design. And maybe in the future, that’ll not only
help us save the trees but also synthesize a whole range of materials we’ve never even
dreamed of. Outro:
Imitating the structure of materials like wood requires understanding space, shapes,
and angles — the kind of thing you learn in a geometry course. And if that’s piqued your interest, Brilliant
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us! {♫Outro♫}

100 thoughts on “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Wood”

  1. Go to http://Brilliant.org/SciShow to try their 60+ courses in math, computer science, and scientific thinking. The first 200 subscribers get 20% off an annual Premium subscription.

  2. Why not just grow and use more trees for wood?
    Oxygen production, carbon dioxide storage, added water vapor, distributed production, erosion prevention, etc.

    Using genetically engineered trees for specific uses.

  3. I used to be good at guessing where the video ends and which sentence starts the advertisement, but they start blending in too good, and that powerloss kind of annoys me 🙂

  4. To propose that wood alternatives would be a more environmentally friendly alternative to real wood is false. Real wood is actually a carbon negative building source while plastics and other synthetic products are carbon positive. As long as socks are managed properly, we can simultaneously preserve forests. Modern fire management practices actually encourage the removal of trees periodically to prevent fires like we are seeing in recent years in California.

  5. Is it more environmentally practical to substitute wood with plastic? That just sounds like killing one part of the environment to save another. We could try planting new trees, but I know that would take some time.

  6. so basically you'll end up using plastic… a non-renewable raw material… to emulate wood, a very-renewable raw material…

  7. You know, trees do this cool thing where they grow back. Compared to old, stagnant forests, properly managed forests and tree farms that are thinned regularly or logged and regrown on a cycle mean stronger trees that grow faster and trap more carbon, clearer and more useful lumber for practical human uses like construction, healthier trees and a greater diversity of plant life that better resist parasites and disease, and improved environments with more variability for fauna to live and find food.

    You want more, better forests? Support sustainable logging efforts that work to preserve and improve this natural resource, and instead go after the folks who permanently clear and/or burn huge chunks of forests to use the land for other things like raising livestock. That's the real problem.

  8. Here's an idea to create she would like structure that's cheaper than regular wood. Genetically modify a tree to grow faster but so fast and filled with filler, then dissolve the filler and fill it with material to increase its structure.

  9. Can't we just 3D print or design a fancy machine to create different materials with different different materials with larger macro size shapes for convenience, something that retains its durability based on Woods macro structures

  10. Why create more plastics. Growing wood literally takes CO2 out of the air… making plastic requires energy and CO2 production to make and now you have yet another piece of plastic that will end up in the environment one day.

  11. Be careful what you wish for. We have more trees than ever in north america because we have a high demand for wood from trees, so we plant more trees. Take away the need for trees to get wood, then you take away the need to plant more trees.

  12. Q: "Can we create wood?"
    A: "Yes, but it takes a lot of effort to produce and then resumes its sad, shapeless form."

  13. Honestly the biggest thing this discussion misses is that any artificial wood substitute will be based on plastics, and the vast majority of plastics are based on oil. Sustainable forrestry is a thing, and it can be profitable as well as sustainable. Using wood isn't necessarily evil, it can even be better than many alternatives.

  14. Cellular pvc has a big problem with thermal stability, wood is still far better in that aspect as well. Not having to paint it is nice though.

  15. To me, the only good reason to replace wood is if we make something fireproof or rotproof. Otherwise, I personally think it's a total waste of time. Most synthetic materials will not be easy to easy to dispose of in the event the structure gets destroyed.

  16. Why don't they splice the fast growing gene from bamboo into trees grown for lumber? You could have a douglas fir tree grow into a useable lumber in a few years rather than 25 or 30.

  17. Omg just plant more trees!!! They pretty much make themselves, already come in a range of harnesses/colours and you can you can usually find at least one type of tree that grows in a similar climate to where humans live (besides freezing temperatures). Plant the trees in an already open field instead of chopping down a forest to make room to grow them. Improve or alter their most preferred traits or genetically modify them if you want! But it’s really not hard to grow trees and we actually need it. We don’t need plastic ‘wood’ houses and we don’t need to screw up the planet any more than we already have. This is ridiculous.

  18. I think the way for saving our forests is not cutting less trees, but planting more of them than we cut down. Wood is an excellent building material and it sequesters carbon. Making fake wood out of plastic means we still need to pump oil. We should instead make fake plastic out of wood. That way we sequester carbon in a more durable way.

  19. I am fine with fake wood as long as it can safe cutting off the real one and more importantly not just another thing that will fills our landfill become trash and doesn't decomposes.

  20. We have a pair of ironwood bookends. Holy hell are those things hard and heavy. You need special tools to cut it and of course it sinks in water.

  21. Well, the idea here is not to "save the forests". That's a thing lefties say to frighten us. The best reason to manufacture wood is to make better wood than nature can make. Stronger, lighter maybe, knot free, straighter, closer tolerances, longer life span, better fastener holding, and nicer appearance in some cases. Possibly even cheaper eventually. For now real wood is the best option.

  22. why should exact properties matter? we use wood because its "supposedly" cheaper. why not use a material as mentioned in the video and end the progress of self destruction?

  23. The future of wood is sustainable urban forestry! All trees, like us, will die, and we need proper waste management practices in place to sequester as much of that carbon as possible in added value wood products! #lumbercycle

  24. I wonder if you could make artificial wood in a similar way to when you cook spaghetti but don't mix it and it all hardens together. So Fibrous tubes that have a liquid added to them or even a hot steam that sets them together.

  25. Of course we can't make fake woods, there still alot more cheaper woods, like real woods. Make real woods disappear, than i'm sure suddenly we can make fake woods.

  26. That’s called the new material “Beyond wood”, “Impossible wood”, or “I can’t believe this is not wood.”

  27. I’m in favor of cutting down tree wood use by utilizing bamboo in framing. Entire structures within the walls that make our buildings, structures of their own that are covered out of sight with insulation, drywall and paint. Bamboo typically grows about 2” a day as an average among breeds, is soil regenerative, stronger than wood both compressive and tensile rated, moisture resistant, not typically engaged by pests, and thanks to modern breeding has some which can grow in as low as almost -20c. And, we can turn it’s fibers into planks with similar properties as it’s raw rods/stalks yet looks like a contemporary, bright Maple, but is surprisingly easily dyed, like normal planks, to be magenta if you want magenta, much less a rich ebony we pretty much have standardized.

    Just gotta send some code creators over to do some learning from Asia. Hell, I just watched a video a few months ago about Chinese construction workers making the siding of a skyscraper out of bamboo rods, fastened with a bamboo rope because twisted even moderately well it did sturdier fastening than the toughest, most ideally driven nails.

    Imagine how much more sustainable construction would be if the space that grew one house worth of trees in 25 years grew 25 houses worth of bamboo in one month?

  28. The idea of wanting to save the trees by making more plastic, especially composite materials that cannot be recycled, is ludicrous, and will only serve to further pollute rather than save the environment.

  29. Not convinced on why wood alternative is needed. Isn't growing and gathering wood better for ecology than making wood-like plastic?

  30. I guess you don't realize, shocking I know , that U.S. companies that harvest trees actually plant and replace what they cut down… but you don't mention that..

  31. Unpopular opinion: saving all forests is not really the best idea. There are plenty ways to reduce CO2 emmisions, but to actually take the CO2 out of the air is very difficult. Best way to do it is to chop down part of the forest, permanently store the timber somewhere (e.g. as a building construction), and let the forest regrow.
    Repeat every 30 years.

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