As we barrel into the future, what used to happen only in nature is taking place in labs. In the new world of cellular agriculture, scientists are making meat without killing animals. And now it’s the trees’ turn to live, as scientists have figured out how to 3D print wood. Instead of being felled and turned into chairs, newspapers, wallpaper, egg cartons, bags, boxes and toilet paper, soon trees may be able to continue growing.

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We need trees and wood

As the global human population has surged to eight billion, with many of those people wanting lots of stuff, we keep cutting down trees to provide myriad products. Since the beginning of human civilization, we’ve wiped out 54% of Earth’s tree population, according to one global forest survey. And while we worry about protecting elephants and rhinos from ivory-seeking poachers, the most trafficked wild product is actually rosewood. From Thailand to Madagascar, where there’s rosewood there are people trying to chop down the endangered tree and sell it to the Chinese furniture market. Tangling with rosewood poachers is so dangerous that the tree has earned the nickname “bloodwood.”

Related: 3D-printed tiny homes are made from recycled plastic

But a tree doesn’t have to have wood suitable for making furniture fit for imperial dynasties to be valuable. Trees provide shade to cool our neighborhoods, remove carbon from the atmosphere, filter water, clean our air and slow storm surges. So the ability to 3D print wood is good news for humans as well as for trees.

MIT geniuses revolutionize wood

Scientists affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory published their breakthrough in the journal Materials Today last year. They embarked on their work in order to reduce waste and environmental disruption while increasing yields and production rates.

They started with cells from the Zinnia elegans, otherwise known as zinnias.

“In principle, the effort to produce plant materials in the absence of the supporting plant is not entirely unlike tissue engineering in animal cell systems,” the study authors wrote. “In both fields, cells in a structured, nutrient-rich growth environment can be directed to grow and transform into tissue-like products.”

Plant cells require different metabolic pathways than animal cells, but the scientists were able to build upon the more-developed mammalian field. So far, most tissue engineering efforts have focused on animal cell culture. The study authors point out that theirs is the first work to use the cellular agriculture approach to generate plant material. You can read all the juicy details of the study here.

A 3D wood printing startup

The MIT scientists might be the first to make wood from zinnia cells. But they’re not the first to experiment with alternative ways of making wood. A startup called Forust has been 3D printing wood for a few years now, beginning with the wood waste products of sawdust and lignin. The latter ingredient is an organic polymer that is one of the chief constituents of wood.

“We realized really quickly that wood waste is a material that could be transformed for 3D printing,” said Virginia San Fratello, chair of the design department at San Jose State University and one of the Forust founders, told Fast Company in 2021. Their process involves layers of sawdust and nontoxic binders to recreate wood grain.

“A tree is made of lignin and cellulose,” said Ric Fulop, CEO of Desktop Metal, a larger 3D printing company that includes Forust, as reported by Fast Company. “When you make things out of trees, whether it’s furniture or paper, you’re essentially dematerializing the tree… what we’re trying to do is put that back together.” It may sound a little like particle board. But the grain in the 3D printed wood goes all the way through the material, so you can sand and finish it just like wood.

And there’s plenty of surplus sawdust and lignin. Forust diverts these materials from landfills.

“Hundreds of millions of metric tons of waste is generated every year just in the U.S. alone,” said Fulop.

Cutting down on waste

One of the cool things about both these processes is that objects can be 3D printed in their final forms. Companies can 3D print a chair or table — with no waste. They can also print complex shapes. Perhaps best of all, 3D printing could lead to a circular process for wood manufacturing. When your old headboard wears out or breaks, you could send it back to the manufacturer, where it could be ground up and 3D-printed into a bookcase or chair or whatever else the market demands. Furniture could be made in a whole new way, free of waste.

Of course, 3D wood printing technology is still in the early stages. But the MIT scientists are hopeful. Their study looks forward to a future where materials could be produced locally, anywhere in the world, without requiring sunlight or land.

Via Interesting Engineering, New York Times, Fast Company

Lead image via Pexels