Star Trek Material Science Is Finally Real: Transparent Wood

It’s not transparent aluminum, exactly, but it might be even better: transparent wood. Scientists at the University of Maryland have devised a way to remove all of its coloring, leaving behind an essentially clear piece of wood.

IMG_20160518_110605By boiling the block of wood in a NaOH and Na2SO chemical bath for a few hours the wood loses its lignin, which is gives wood its color. The major caveat here is that the lignin also gives wood strength; the colorless cellulose structure that remains is itself very fragile. The solution is to impregnate the transparent wood with an epoxy using about three vacuum cycles, which results in a composite that is stronger than the original wood.

There are some really interesting applications for this material. It does exhibit some haze so it is not as optimally transparent as glass but in cases where light and not vision is the goal — like architectural glass block — this is a winner. Anything traditionally build out of wood for its mechanical properties will be able to add an alpha color channel to the available options.

The next step is finding a way to scale up the process. At this point the process has only been successful on samples up to 1 centimeter thick. If you’re looking to build a starship out of this stuff in the meantime, your best bet is still transparent aluminum. We do still wonder if there’s a way to eliminate the need for epoxy, too.

88 thoughts on “Star Trek Material Science Is Finally Real: Transparent Wood

    1. It’s a new composite material.

      You could say the same about aerogel “It’s just bubbly silica gel! Nothing to get excited about…” and you’d be really silly for saying so.

      Experimenting with stuff like this is how you get those “huh, that’s weird, why did it do that?” moments, you know, the moments when science discovers something new and eventually, useful.

      1. Still, saying that it’s wood, when in reality the material consists of >85% epoxy or acrylic, is a bit of a misnomer.

        It’s a fiber-reinforced plastic, similiar to Duroplast, or what they used to make Trabants out of.

    2. I guess new advances in science, whatever they are, aren’t worth getting excited about. Pack it up researchers everywhere. Scientific research isn’t about pragmatism 100% of the time, it’s also become highly specialized that someone outside the field may ask “Why are they doing this”. Who knows where it will lead?

      Truth is, as a material scientist, we are still decades behind nature in making materials. There are whole labs devoted to mimicking nature and studying why natural materials behave the way they do. By studying how we can modify these, we end up with stronger, lighter, more advanced materials.

      “Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not!” – Cave Johnson.

      1. I did, i’m not stupid to that point. It just seems weird to put a mobile link. Especially since it doesn’t redirect to the normal version but it does the other way.

        1. It’s not really his fault. Wiki and the phone auto-detect each other, science happens, and copy-pasting looks fine. My links get screwed all the time. I will keep this in mind though for others. I’m going to try the computer in mobile to see the difference. I know non-mobile pages suck when I have to use them.

    1. Plus, y’know, it doesn’t look like wood. And we already have glass. Can’t really think of a lot of practical uses for this one. It’s still a clever bit of chemistry, but I doubt it’s going to take off. Maybe as a novelty in expensive houses.

    2. “In this new effort, the researchers used approximately the same technique to remove the lignin, but then coated it with an epoxy to make the wood even stronger—stronger they report, than glass (and it is a better insulator), and it will biodegrade much better than plastic.”

      Source: phys.org, not sure if direct links are allowed, but a quick google search will verify the quote.

        1. Modern landfills are built to be stable and dry, and as such, practically nothing degrades, not even newspapers. Plastics actually degrade pretty fast in water (which is why BPA concerns are a thing), and that degradation speeds up in brine water.

          Now, while plastic does indeed degrade much faster than previously thought, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing because it adds a higher concentration of a chemical that isn’t naturally prevalent to oceanic ecosystems.

          1. Maybe it’s a good thing that stuff doesn’t break down in a modern landfill. Today we call them garbage dumps. My theory is that somewhere between 50 and 500 years from now they will be known as mines. That job sure is going to suck though!

          2. Plastics don’t exactly decompose in nature as they just crumble into smaller and smaller pieces because exposure to UV light makes them brittle. Most plastics are not edible to any sort of microbes, which is why the pacific ocean garbage gyre is a problem: birds, fish and other marine life ingest the floating plastic crumbs as food and subsequently die of malnutrition and starvation.

            The cellulosic matrix of this new material is edible to micro-organisms, so it breaks down faster, but the resin itself isn’t and so it’s more of a matter of “out of sight, out of mind”, because the object dissapears into a sludge and spreads far and wide.

        2. I’m not sure because they want 20 bucks to access the article for 48 hours. I just thought I’d find some sort of answer to that question, but yeah, it’s a very vague statement.

          I mean, maybe you could use a biodegradable epoxy, but those aren’t really commercially viable. PLA is the go to plastic that sticks out in my mind, but that’s not really as much biodegradable as it is compostable. And, at least from a structural material point of view, has garbage properties.

    1. This is likely not going to deliver.
      Firstly the quality of the text is poor and lacking details. Their delivery timeline is unrealistic and they don’t seem ti understand the logistics of delivering a project like this.
      It is either a well meaning pile of crap or a scam. I guess we’ll know by year’s end.

    2. I’m not sure what a 3d printer has to do with this article. I’ll bite though. How about a vote? Who thinks this $50 printer is real? Who thinks it’s a scam? Need a 3rd option? How about not an intentional scam but over-optimism and there is no way it will ever ship?

      1. The race to the bottom in hardware historically ends up with 4 sorts of outcomes: price goes up 50% or more as reality sets in, “SD card / power supply / case not included” as reality sets in, company goes bust as reality sets in, and scam from the start. I don’t need to click on Paulo’s link to tell that it’s throwing money away.

        1. In a kickstarter article I posted something about making a crappyprinter and kickstart it, it had no power supply(2 usb cables), a bowden molineau pump for extruder, the cheapest stepper motors ever made, a smaller print area and h-bridges that are basically transistors on a 2 buck nano-clone and I couldn’t sell it for less than 56$.

      1. Yeah, but lots of us have laser cutters, and only a select few have ready access to waterjet cutters. I’m always on the lookout for interesting new laser-cuttable materials, and opened this link hoping for one.

          1. Ah haha, nail gun race again! I was like WTF for a second.
            Burn notice seems like a good show. Saw a couple of episodes. I’m more of a Sci-Fi fan so I would just be beamed out.
            MacGyver had a scene where he made a thermal lance to open a door. I thought it was total BS until Mythbusters played with thermite.
            Just for fun, this is the correct way to escape from a room.

          2. In BURN NOTICE, he made his own Thermite to dispose of a “hot potato” firearm instead of just throwing it in the harbor next to his warehouse loft. The show has finished now and is only showing old re-runs on USA NETWORK. I think he too used a thermal lance or burn-bar in an episode to open a safe (not sure). That water jet idea was invented back in 19th century. Wasn’t really useful for things as hard as metal or rocks until 1960’s. You could make one but you’d need PSI of well over 1k and maybe some garnets (particle-sized) as abrasives (you recycle everything). But you don’t need abrasives for softer stuff. The nozzles are made of exotic stuff to be able to withstand the friction erosion. That would be your most expensive part I guess.

            Regarding the boat: yes that is cool but wasn’t there an old movie about the GLASS BOTTOM BOAT? You couldn’t use this piece of transparent wood as it’s only translucent but maybe be quite water-proof though.

  1. This may not be strictly functional, but it could have lots of commercial applications. They say it’s stronger than the original wood, after being sluiced with epoxy. So it could make some nice, discretely detailed wall panels and tiles. Or translucent roof windows. Gimmicks like that, for the hardware and DIY store.

  2. I’m surprised that there are so many negative comments on this. Is this going to be a revolutionary new material that replaces what we build houses from today? Probably not. Maybe a replacement for glass blocks.. I don’t know. But is it cool?

    What are the odds of being able to do this at home? How about those ‘three vacuum cycles’? Is equipment to do that hard to obtain? Think about it… how easy is it to work and shape glass? Now compare it to wood. How many people out there have their own home woodworking shops and are competent in using them? How many skilled glass blowers do you know?

    This may or may not be a big deal in professional construction but it looks like great news for home hackers to me!

    1. I’m not surprised. It just looks like a huge pile of BS. Of course it’s stronger than wood. But is it stronger then regular clear epoxy preps? I doubt it. This is hardly more then a piece of paper dumped in Epoxy. Paper is wood with the Lignin removed.

      1. Paper fibers mixed into epoxy will result in strengthening, similar to the use of fiberglass. I would expect this material to be stronger than “regular clear epoxy preps”, especially in terms of crack migration.

      2. It should be stronger than regular clear preps because they made an ordered composite material. The rule of mixtures says so.

        I can’t read the paper because it’s behind a paywall, so I can assume you haven’t read the actual published text either. Given that you haven’t read the source material, how can you claim you understand what they are doing well enough to make your claims? Honestly, if the paper were just accessible we could look at its material properties and put this whole argument to rest.

    1. I think you meant “halogen” when you said “halide”. Halides/salts aren’t necessarily transparent. Sodium Chloride, for example. It would be an interesting experiment, but I don’t think it would result in a transparent material.

      1. Sodium chloride is transparent, when you use it as a single crystal. I have been told they used it as lens material for IR (CO2) lasers in former Warsaw-pact countries when ZnSe was restricted or otherwise not available. The performance was said to be quite good except for the massive hygroscopic properties of ordinary table salt aka. NaCl.
        But reading about this aluminum clusters I would not dare to predict optical properties of such a compound.

    2. Because we already have sapphire windows and Al13 will form ionic bonds.
      Ionic materials tend to not have a great deal of material strength being fairly brittle, they also readily dissolve in water.

      An interesting material, but likely not useful for structural purposes.

        1. Why did Capt Kirk suggest transparent “anything” in his request to Scottie for the whale tank? Wouldn’t the whales be more comfortable NOT being able to see humans walking around looking at them from the interior of a Klingon Bird-Of-Prey? Aluminum sided tank would be lightweight, sturdy, and a blind for the whales. They would just remain calm coming up for gulps of air periodically. A camera could be placed in the tank to view their status.

          I always wondered why the ancient alien vessel destructively looking for the presence of whale song in the beginning of the movie, could not have been fooled with archival audio from old file footage of whale song.I guess that’s Hollywood plot lines.

          Did you hear that some Humpbacks actually came into the bay in SF Calif (USA) last week? Almost like the movie. Glad there where no Japanese Whalers nearby.

          1. Most likely because the object would scan for the whales to verify the source. As for transparency, we’re talking about a group of people who actually have ranking officers who are dolphins. They probably prefer to see their coworkers so that’s the assumption the crew was probably working under.

          2. Rollyn01 – Under that hypothetical assumption the creatures piloting the ancient ship would have to have manual dexterity to operate the flight control systems. That would rule out “dolphins”. However, the ship could have been automated like how we do here on Earth. But in the opening scenes they were theoretically only looking for audio response to their whale song preamble. Being able to see them under seawater from space is a bit problematic as our USN submarines are almost impossible to see from space while deeply submerged. Hump Backs love going deep too.

            In the closing scene, the “visitors” did not “see” the whales in the Bird-Of-Prey. It was not until Scottie opened the cargo bay doors and dumped the whale tank. The whales immediately started whale song which is alleged to have a range of over 3,000 nautical miles (per USN-SOSUS). Also SPOCK mind-melded with one of them and “explained” what the situation back home in the future was all about. I guess Hump Backs are pretty smart?

            So I still don’t get “why TRANSPARENT aluminum and not just regular aluminum?”

    1. The problem is that they are leaving the matrix material from the wood. That means that when you try to put a screw into it, the epoxy fibers will just split apart, just like wood, and possibly worse since the epoxy is likely more brittle than the lignin fibers it replaced. This is still a uni-directional fiber composite with really great properties through the thickness, and really terrible properties in-plane.

        1. So many wood framed houses disagree with you… Ain’t no way all those nail holes were pre-drilled. Likewise with a greal deal of finish carpentry. Pre-drilling is useful for certain specific purposes, but it’s hardly a universal requirement.

          1. @Rob – I didn’t mean 2×4’s and wood joists like in a new home build. I know nobody pre-drills them before nailing. I was referring to a thin piece of wood like the one in the OP. If you were to try and drive a nail through it, it would certainly split in two. Pre-drilling prevents that. Most people would use screws, glue, or press-fitting with a piece of thin wood like the example above not nails. With glass drilling is usually prohibitive. The same applies to screws and nails. Glass usually is press-fit into a frame. Polycarbonate could be drilled, screwed, and nailed but is more expensive than wood.

            I would like to see what my idea with transparent aluminum above could do (actually alumina-impregnated-poiycarbonate-laminate).

          2. You don’t nail wood on the end grain because it will split the fibers and the nail will become loose over time, and you also don’t nail too close to the end of a piece because again, the wood will split. With small finishing nails you can go pretty close, but if you try to hammer a 9 inch nail through a 1/4″ panel, it’s going to split.

            It’s pretty common in carpentry to “pre-drill” holes with an awl.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradawl

  3. This will never go in houses. The method is replacing the long fibers (normally oriented lengthwise in boards) and it is doubtful you can scale it to building construction lengths for any reasonable cost.

    There is an interesting possible use case: composite sandwich material. Currently if you want a really strong and light panel of composite, you have 2 thin skins with a sandwich material in the middle. The outer skins orient their fibers in-plane to the panel, but the sandwich fibers are oriented perpendicular to the panel. Currently, balsa is a popular wood used for sandwich material, cut in thin slices. If this method actually produces a material with improved strength to weight ratio, not just strength, and beat the price point of traditional honeycomb materials, it could be a viable product.

  4. There has been work done on converting lignin to epoxy resins (epoxidation) so it seem logical that the next step should be to convert the lignin in the wood directly to epoxy resins. If they can borinate it at the same time you have a product that is also less vulnerable to fire and insect or fungal attack.

    1. Also it does not matter if you need to do this with thin sheets to be economical, because they can still end up as a form of waterproof translucent plywood which would have a huge number of potential applications.

      1. Except the optical properties depend on the fibers being perpendicular to the plane, and the mechanical properties of plywood depend on the fibers being cross the plane. It would make for a really lousy plywood that snaps into pieces from a bit of bending.

        1. The material is not optically anisotropic, therefore the premise that your assertion is based on is false. It would make fantastic plywood that would be stronger than “normal” plywood as the grain alignment would be the same but the fibres would be more strongly bound, and totally waterproof.

  5. I assume that the process of the lignin out of the wood takes time and that the outside is effected first, so what if we just took the process half way, remove enough lignin to allow a cellulose matrix to hold the epoxy for strength, but the remaining lignin will give the look of wood with much greater strength? Sometimes you gotta know when to stop.

    1. But the phenolic ring structure of the lignin is probably what causes it to be brown, so if you don’t remove it or break the ring to change it’s resonance you don’t get a clear end product. You can already vacuum impregnate wood with substances including epoxy resins.

  6. Everything old is new again. This chemistry was used to make slowmatch from hemp rope, with the side effect of decolorizing it. Boiling any lignin containing fiber in strong lye solution will result in the lignin becoming soluble and leaching out, and the fiber becoming decolorized. Later this was the Kraft paper pulp process. Very accessible experiment if you want to try it. NaOH is available as drain opener, and you can get sodium sulfite on amazon or make it with any number of reactions.

    1. If you buy NaOH, try the cheap drain cleaner crystals. No coloring.
      Wear gloves, of course. And glasses. And proper ventilation. And do it outside.
      And don’t let the neighbors see you doing magic with common household goods.
      .
      Thank you for mentioning slow match! I didn’t know what it was but last 4th of July I could have used it. Grand Finale happened sooner than expected!

  7. Someone make this material into a boat or a kayak! That might look awesome or terrible. We need a full-scale prototype, not a clear lab sample of vacuum impregnated wood. I’m disappointed.

    1. Resin first and then make it INVISIBLE. How would you make it clear? JK
      You seem like a nice guy and meant that post to go to someone higher up in the thread. I thought it was a good video though very easy to find.
      .
      I’ve read about resin impregnation of furniture before and think it would be cool to try on a log that has been devastated by insects. (There would be leds hidden inside. Would make an awesome lamp.)
      Thanks for the link. Stick around. Please skim through the comments first if you didn’t. :)

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