Back to blog | November 9 2021 | Alexandre Morin Bernard | Forest engineer

Innovation in the wood products industry

Using forest resources more rationally through innovation in the wood products industry. 

Innovation in the wood products industry is now allowing this material to be integrated into a wider range of buildings, while also providing environmental benefits through CO2 sequestration. Designing buildings using materials with a lower environmental footprint, such as wood and bio-based materials in general, is the first step towards ecodesign. Ecodesign is an innovative approach that aims to reduce the environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle, while retaining its usability qualities. Beyond the simple choice of materials, ecodesign therefore involves rethinking the way in which products are produced for building construction. Fortunately, the versatility of the wood material and the ingenuity of local researchers and entrepreneurs allow us to use the resource even more rationally. The aim is to reduce the consumption of raw materials by avoiding waste and by making the most of every part of the tree and the co-products generated during processing.

A perfect example of ecodesign is the wood construction industry and the engineering products they use today. For example, a Québec manufacturer found an ingenious way to make glued-laminated timber using parts of black spruce and other Québec resin species which have a limited size that prevented their use in products intended for construction. A multitude of small strips of less than one metre in length are assembled to form various structural elements, including arches reaching a range of around 70 metres! In addition, since some wood defects, such as knots or grain deviations, can be limited, and the most resistant wood pieces can be placed where the forces experienced will be the greatest, a structural element in glued-laminated timber is even stronger than if it were made from a single tree!

Figure 1. Use of glued-laminated timber arches by Nordic Structures for the construction of Telus Stadium at Université Laval. Photo credit: Véronique Audet

The revolution behind engineered products like glued-laminated and cross-laminated timber is that they allow smaller wood to be used to make larger, longer-lived and higher-value products.

Why is this important? First of all, because it allows more of the timber harvested from our forests to be used for long-term purposes. The carbon contained in the wood will therefore be sequestered there for a longer period of time before being re-emitted to the atmosphere, thus contributing to the mitigation of global warming. It is also crucial to the vitality of our economy. A product such as a glued-laminated timber beam has a much higher added value than a product that comes from a standard transformation process, such as traditional 2x4s for example. As is the case with all other natural resources, the more raw material we process here, the greater the benefit for the local economy! To use as much of a tree as possible in products that will have greater ecological and economic benefits is to make a rational use of the resource.

The environmental benefits of an ecodesign approach can be accounted for through a variety of means, including Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This method calculates all the environmental impacts, from the extraction of the raw material, through its manufacture, transport and maintenance, to the end of the product’s life. The assessment obviously considers the waste generated by the transformation process. In the wood products industry, it is much better to use the term “co-product” because these materials can be upgraded! Any time you find a use for co-products in a transformation process, you reduce the environmental impact of the product that is generated, because that waste becomes a raw material.

Figure 2. Wood panels and thermal and acoustic insulation for construction that are manufactured from wood chips, sawdust or other co-products generated by wood processing. Photo credit: Alexandre Morin-Bernard

In the context of environmentally responsible construction, wood and its derivatives can be used not only in the structure, but also in what is called the building envelope, which includes things like sheeting, insulation, and membranes. For example, sawdust, shavings and chips are used to make boards, such as the oriented strand board, better known as OSB. Depending on the size of the particles used, these boards will have different appearance and mechanical properties, making them suitable for a wide variety of uses in the building and even for the manufacture of furniture. Wood fibre is also used to make suspended ceiling tiles, thermal insulation, and acoustic panels. In addition to creating markets for co-products generated in the manufacture of structural elements and other wood products, the use of bio-based materials in the building envelope also reduces the use of non-renewable resources often found in conventional insulation materials and membranes.

Researchers and industrialists are constantly pushing the boundaries by developing new products that meet the needs of building designers. This is particularly the case for the Chaire industrielle de recherche sur la construction écoresponsable en bois (CIRCERB) [Industrial Research Chair in Environmentally Responsible Wood Construction] of Université Laval, in which professors and students work directly with their industry and government partners to develop environmentally responsible solutions using wood and other bio-based materials to reduce the environmental footprint of buildings. It also seeks to better understand the impact of materials used on the well-being and health of occupants.

While there are many examples of innovation and application of wood products in the construction sector, many other sectors are expected to use forest by-products. The versatility of wood is such that its uses are almost unlimited! It is through close coordination and constant collaboration between these different sectors of the industry that we will be able to use forest resources responsibly to meet the needs of today, but also of future generations!

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