The key to engineering wood strong enough to support skyscrapers may lie in the interaction between molecules 10,000 times narrower than the width of a human hair.
A new study by researchers at the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge has solved a long-held mystery of how key polymers in plant cells bind to form strong, indigestible materials such as wood and straw. By recreating this ‘glue’ in a lab, engineers may be able to produce new wood-based materials that surpass current strength capabilities.
The discovery lies in the bond between the Earth’s two most common polymers, cellulose and xylan, both of which are found in the cell walls of wood. For some time, scientists have pondered how xylan, a long, winding polymer coated in ‘decorations’ of sugar and other molecules, could adhere to the thicker, rod-like cellulose molecules.
“We knew the answer must be elegant and simple,” explained research lead Professor Paul Dupree from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. “And in fact, it was. What we found was that cellulose induces xylan to untwist itself and straighten out, allowing it to attach itself to the cellulose molecule. It then acts as a kind of ‘glue’ that can protect cellulose or bind the molecules together, making very strong structures.”
The scientists believe this understand may have a dramatic effect on wood-related industries such as paper and biofuel production by greatly reducing the amount of energy required for their processes to occur, as well as allow for innovation that could create stronger engineered-wood materials.
With timber-framed skyscrapers already appearing around the world, these new materials could potentially solidify wood as the standard for tall building construction for years to come.
Learn more about the discovery, here.
News via Phys.org.