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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Forest Fires and Climate Change

Wondering why we're having all these huge forest fires out in the western United States in recent years? Has Smokey Bear retired?

Actually, Smokey did his job too well. And in combination with the recent long, warm summers, fires, BIG fires, are the result, as Matt Hurteau, Penn State scientist and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab here in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, explains. And the possibility is that these fires could get worse in coming years.




Which is why I say, let's cut more timber while the cutting is good! Well-managed timber stands are far less likely to be consumed by fire than unharvested, fire-suppressed wilderness. Furthermore, living, working forests are more likely to meet societal needs than fire-ravaged wilderness. And the recurrent regeneration of the harvested forests will help reduce local climatic variation and dampen global climate change as the young saplings soak up all that bad carbon dioxide out there.

Let's make wood.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (45) - The Traditional Finnish Log House

This weekend was the signal weekend for us here in central Pennsylvania, that weekend that is just cool enough in the mornings that we know Fall is here and Winter will be here before we know it. Some thoughts turn to hunting or football. Mine turn to firewood, and getting the house and yard ready for winter. Problem is, every year that goes by, it takes more to get me outside and working.

That's where YouTube has helped out. I may not be able to work outside like I used to, but I can sure watch others do it. And after doing so, I feel motorvated to get up and push wood around, or something.

This year, I've been a little under the weather all summer and feeling sorry for myself. I needed something especially inspiring. Even more inspiring than impossibly humongous stacks of firewood. I needed to see real men doing something to remind me that I aspire to be a real man one of these days.

And then I found the Finnish carpenters.

These guys are building a house the old-fashioned way, one log at a time. With hand tools. In the winter.

Now, the narration of this video is in Finnish, and I can testify from my short time visiting that country that Finnish is absolutely unintelligible to anyone other than a Finn. I think the original Finns found themselves caught between the Swedes and the Russians, and couldn't decide which language to use, so they just combined the Swedish and Russian syllables together, making every word about twenty-seven letters long. As a result, the Finns don't talk very much...and their country seems to be the better for it.

Fortunately, the work in this video speaks for itself. It is mesmerizing to watch from the very beginning. Every scene unravels another amazing feat of craftsmanship and woodworking magic. And they make it look easy...no tape measures, no cords, no laser or chalk lines, no T-squares, and the only time I saw a level used was in mounting the windows. These guys are not good, they are great.

There is a way to turn on English captions, but I strongly suggest just watching the video first without them because they detract from the magic of the saws, planes, hammers, adzes, draw knives, and axes. Just watch and admire. Then, if you want to know the details like what is the stuff they're using to chink the logs (tar oakum and moss), or what in the heck kind of foundation they're building, you can re-run the video and click on the "CC" icon to turn on the English sub-titles.



Oh, the meal in the middle of the video is a traditional Finnish celebration of the ridge placement. Even the Finns have to take a break sometime.

Thanks, boys, I'm gonna get after it this coming weekend. After the football game, that is.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Wood Science 101 (12) - Extracting Lignin from Wood in the Laboratory (Part 1)

Back in an earlier post of this series (Wood Science 101 (3) - Lignin) we discussed the miracle of lignin and it's bright future in materials research and development.

This morning I was able to capture part of the progress of this ongoing science on video. Brett Diehl, a graduate student here at Penn State, has been studying the process of lignin extraction from various wood species. In the following video, Brett explains what lignin is, why he is studying it, and how the specific extraction process works. Here he covers the first part of the process, extracting what are called "extractives" from the wood in a multi-step process in preparation for the actual extraction of lignin. It is the final process of actual lignin extraction which Brett hopes to be able to improve upon.




Current commercial pulping techniques, which utilize pressure and harsh chemicals, beat the structure of the lignin pretty badly, resulting in low yields and quality, and therefore higher cost of the lignin. He hopes to be able to improve the lignin yield and quality in the laboratory, leading to possible similar gains in lignin extraction at the commercial level.

If Brett and others like him succeed, we may someday be finally wearing affordable Star Trek clothing made from lignin, and flying lignin-reinforced aerocars. If so, forest management will once again be noted for something other than wildfires.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Wood Science 101 (11) - Where Does Cork Come From?

You may be a connoisseur of fine wines and wondered about corks. They look like wood, but their spongy feel makes them seem a little different than wood.

The fact is that natural corks are produced from the bark of the cork oak, Quercus suber. And this bark is stripped right off the live tree, in fact several times during the life of the tree. Your first reaction is probably something like "Doesn't that hurt the tree?" Amazingly enough, the cork oaks not only survive the harvest of their bark, but seem to thrive in spite of it.

Quercus suber, the cork oak, showing its form and vitality in spite of being stripped of its bark. From Wikimedia Commons.

Here's a great video shared by the International Wood Culture Association that tells the story of the trees and their unique product.


The really fascinating, and important, thing to understand about cork production is that from a ecological standpoint, we should all want more cork to be harvested and used, not less. You may be aware that there are cork substitutes, such as artificial corks and screw tops, being promoted by unscrupulous wine merchants as environmentally-friendly alternative to natural corks. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You see, use of natural corks in wine closure creates a strong market for the cork production and the maintenance of cork oak forests. As cheaper substitutes replace natural cork in the bottle, the market for the natural products shrinks and cork oak forests are converted to higher value use, such as grazing or Eucalyptus timber production. These land uses put more stress on the local ecology, as explained by The Rainforest Alliance...
"Cork oak also provides its ecosystem with several benefits. The trees help prevent soil erosion from wind and water, and increase the absorption rate of rainfall. The cork oak forests of the Mediterranean act as a barrier to the advancing process of desertification from North Africa. Furthermore, a harvested cork oak tree stores up to five times more carbon than an unharvested tree, since the tree utilizes additional carbon in the regeneration of its bark. Each year, cork oak forests account for 10 million tons of CO2 absorption." - Rainforest Alliance.org
Digging into the topic a little I discovered this 60-year-old video online, which I think you'll want to watch if the topic interests you. You'll see the same as in the above video, but in addition you'll see something common to practically all wood product manufacturing processes: that is, nothing ever gets wasted. Scrap from one process turns into by-product feedstock for another. The video provided me with fond memories of scraping cork liners out of Coca-Cola bottle tops to find the images of different ballplayers - once you had them all, you could redeem your collection for a prize. I hit the gold mine when my dad brought home the whole load of bottle tops from the Coke machine in his office. Wish now I had the collection rather than the prize I redeemed it for, whatever it was.


So the next time you pick up a bottle of wine, look for real cork. And you can contemplate your environmental activism while the glow settles in.

Just another great way to Go Wood!