The Forest Products Laboratory is bringing back wood

By Jason Elder

While the rest of the world has sprinted right past wood towards metals, Dr. John Considine’s team is investigating one of the oldest building materials with exciting results.

Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), is a research lab for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service branch, and the only one that looks into topics of national scope. Conceived in 1907 as an effort to improve coordination among regional research centers, their goal is to conduct wood and fiber research to better utilize the wealth found in our nation’s forests. The cornerstone of their work is cellulose; the main building block of plant-life in the world. Cellulose is a molecule with repeating units like plastic, and this polymer is the most abundant found on earth. Put simply by Considine in his talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mechanics Seminar, “This is the polymer we need to understand if we want to understand the world’s problems.”

The United States has an incredible natural resource of wood, and the majority of the Forest Service’s federal budget goes towards fighting fires to protect the forests and those inhabiting them. One of the FPL’s goals is to find novel ways to utilize this vast resource. Wood structures have long since been essential to the construction industry. Through clever design of the joints between wood members and slight building code changes to maximize the stiffness of the joints, the construction industry is now able to safely make larger wooden buildings than ever before. The research at FPL involved investigating the location of the bolt holes in a joint connection. Using experiments and computer modeling, they were able to reduce deflection and move common failure locations to areas of less importance to the structure’s integrity. More wood buildings not only decreases costs of construction materials and shipping, it also reduces the amount of potential wildfire fuel the Forest Service needs to protect.

Following along that theme of safety, Considine’s work at the FPL has even improved on the age old design of baseball bats. Until recently, bats had been made almost exclusively from ash without significant attention to the orientation of the wood’s grain. However, maple bats started to appear in dugouts following Barry Bonds’ great success with the material.  But lack of understanding of hard maple properties and performance led to a large increase in bat failures as compared to ash. After finding the optimal configuration of grain orientation and density, Considine’s team was able to make recommendations for a quality control regimen to drastically improve maple bats. And their recommendations have reduced multi-piece bat fractures by over 70% in the last 10 years. This means more reliable bat performance, more exciting games, happier players, and a safer environment for baseball patrons.