TU Wien and HS Timber Group have entered into a research partnership with the aim of using wood particles to develop new sustainable materials that are also suitable for 3D printing.
When tree trunks are processed in sawmills, around half of the material are by-products of the wood processing, among these chips and other small wood particles. Now, TU Wien and HS Timber Group, one of the leading wood-processing companies in Europe, are searching for high-quality applications for those by-products. The objective of the ‘WoodComp3D’ project is to develop a process for converting wood particles into a high-quality biocomposite material. This special wood-based material needs to have high stability and load-bearing capacity, so that it can also be used in the construction industry. It may also be suitable for producing tailormade objects in 3D printers.
Dismantling and reassembling
Lignin – a macromolecule that bonds cells to each other and contributes to the stability of the wood – greatly influences the properties of the wood. The researchers’ interest involves extracting some of the lignin from the wood particles. The wood components are then bonded again under pressure and heat. The material shall not be glued together with artificial adhesives. Rather, its natural components should be recombined in a special process to produce a new, stable material.
“The Proof of Concept is the initial step,” says civil engineer Prof. Josef Füssl from TU Wien, one of the academics leading the project alongside chemical engineer Prof. Anton Friedl. “We want to work with HS Timber Group to show that this vision can be implemented. Research issues will be addressed after that.”
The project is interdisciplinary, with several TU Wien research groups involved. The first task is to fractionate the wood and to develop the mechanical-thermal pre-treatment, in order to get the wood components into the desired form. This is being handled by the research groups led by Prof. Anton Friedl and Prof. Michael Harasek. Computer-aided modelling is another important tool: complex materials like wood or new biocomposite materials need to be described on different length scales, from their microstructure to the scale of large structural components. The team led by Prof. Josef Füssl and Dr. Markus Lukacevic is responsible for this. Finally, the team headed up by material chemist Prof. Hinrich Grothe also plays an important role. Their task is to precisely analyse the relationships between the microstructure, and the chemical and physical properties.
Important first step
“The exciting thing about this research project is that it could help solve the great conundrum of the timber processing: lignin. If we succeed, this might mean that wood particles may be suitable for use as innovative materials rather than bio fuel. It may also be possible to manufacture tailored construction materials with perfect product properties – more capable than concrete, more sustainable than plastic, and malleable like polymers,” says Hannes Plackner, who is overseeing the project for HS Timber Group.
“It is very important to us to promote innovation in the forestry and timber sector. That’s why HS Timber Group is providing one million euros of funding in the first year of the research project,” explains CEO Gerald Schweighofer. If the project progresses well, HS Timber Group has committed to provide over three million euros in project funding in the long term.
Michael Kaiser from the Service Unit Fundraising and Community Relations is responsible for the administrative project management. “We are delighted to have found an outstanding partner in HS Timber Group and we hope to have some success in the coming months along with our Proof of Concept.” says Kaiser.
About TU Wien
TU Wien is Austria’s largest research and educational institution in the field of technology and the natural sciences. Here, there are over 4000 academics working on ‘technology for people’ in five key areas of research across eight faculties. The ‘WoodComp3D’ project is part of the ‘Energy and Environment’ research area. For many years, the vision of this research area has included the idea of ‘biorefinery’, in which sophisticated processing solutions are used to convert biomaterial into a multitude of valuable materials. The aim is to help achieve optimal use of resources and to make industry and the economy more environmentally and climate-friendly in the process.
About HS Timber Group
HS Timber Group is a long-established wood processing company of Austrian origin with very strong roots in Central and Eastern Europe, especially Romania. The Group is organised as a holding company based in Vienna. Employing around 4,000 people, the Group primarily operates in the timber industry, but is also involved in lumber trading and bioenergy production. Since 2020, GMB Glasmanufaktur Brandenburg, Europe’s largest manufacturer of solar glass, has been part of the group.