You don't have to shop at Ikea to see that Sweden is obsessed with wood. Over 57% of the country is covered in upwards of 51 billion trees, and lumber and paper products are one of the country's biggest exports.
So leave it to Swedish researchers to figure out a whole new use for all that wood: they've made it transparent. In the future, this emerging material could be used as a stronger, more environmentally sustainable replacement for plastic or glass—in everything from wooden windows to wooden Coca-Cola bottles.
Lars Berglund is a researcher at Sweden's KTH Royal Institute of Technology. With a background in creating strong, light-weight carbon fiber composites for the aerospace industry, Berglund has a history of tweaking materials to exhibit new properties. A few years ago, though, he set his mind to the task of trying to do the same thing for Swedish lumber as he had for the aerospace industry, by figuring out how to give wood totally new properties. Ultimately, he created what he calls a transparent wood composite.
More specifically, Berglund created a technique that begins with thin strips of wood veneer. Using a process similar to chemical pulping, he strips the lignin—which gives wood its brownish color—from the veneer pieces. Once the lignin has been stripped from the wood and replaced with a polymer, a one-millimeter strip of Berglund's composite is 85% transparent—a number that Berglund thinks he will be able to increase over time.
The advantage of transparent wood over something like glass is that it has all the strength of opaque lumber—but still lets in light. Berglund's process, then, could be used to create everything from transparent wood structures to load-bearing windows that never crack or shatter. "We're getting a lot of interest from architects, who want to bring more light into their buildings," says Berglund. It's also as biodegradable and environmentally friendly as regular wood. Berglund even imagines that his composite could be used to create entirely new types of sustainable solar panels, made out of wood instead of chemically treated glass.
Right now, Berglund admits he has a lot of work to do before his composite shows up in, say, a new transparent Ikea line. Although suitable for mass-production, he's unsure how affordable it will be to scale his technique. Still, wood is one of the strongest, toughest, hardest materials there is, and Berglund just figured out how to make it practically invisible. Just imagine what architects and designers will do with transparent wood when they finally get their hands on it.