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The Wood That Could—and Did—Receive a $20M Award

DoE Grant Supports Researcher’s Efforts to Introduce Ultra-strong Wood for Construction

By Maryland Today Staff

Two blocks of compressed wood, one light, one dark

Many types of wood can be compressed to form MetalWood—a building material stronger and lighter than steel. The extreme compression process used causes wood to become much denser (below).

Images courtesy of InventWood

A $20 million federal award will expand development of a University of Maryland-born wood product that’s stronger than steel.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s innovation arm, Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), announced the funding for InventWood, a company founded by Liangbing Hu, Herbert Rabin Distinguished Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Center for Materials Innovation.

The award will fund research into scaling up the use of the company’s MettleWood, which it describes as 60% stronger than construction-grade steel but 80% lighter, much less expensive and far more sustainable. The agency said the product would “contribute to the decarbonization of buildings and enable built structures to store significantly greater amounts of carbon.”

MettleWood product is made by removing lignin, a natural “glue” that holds the cells together, and extremely compressing the remaining wood to create a robust and rust-free structural material. Besides strength, another advantage of the product over conventional wood construction material is that many species can be used.

two blocks of wood

Among a broad range of research areas Hu works in, natural materials like wood have been one of his signatures. Among his other sustainability-focused wood studies to grab headlines and funding have been wooden roof tiles that radiate infrared energy to cool buildings, wood rendered nearly clear to serve as frosted window material, wood that bounces like a rubber ball and wood as components of batteries. (He and his colleagues also recently created a battery electrolyte made of crab shells—but that’s another topic.)

"Dr. Hu has been exploring surprising and innovative uses for an everyday material that most of us hardly think twice about," said UMD Vice President for Research Gregory F. Ball. "Now his exceptional focus is paying off in a way that could revolutionize sustainable construction while taking a big bite out of our carbon emissions."

Liangbing Hu is joined in the project by architecture Associate Professor Ming Hu, an expert in net-zero architectural design, which results in no additional greenhouse emissions. She’ll conduct a life-cycle assessment of the product, which could replace steel structural beams, columns and connections, and—the researchers calculate, ultimately result in reductions of 37.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years. (That’s an amount similar to humanity entirely halting all emissions for a year.)

The award was the largest of eight announced by ARPA-E this month as part of its SCALEUP program to promote clean energy. Others funded projects included hybrid aircraft propulsion, development of advanced magnets free of scarce minerals and growing the number of electric vehicle fast-charging stations.

“Meeting the president’s goals of cutting greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will require an acceleration of private-sector investments across the clean energy and transportation sectors,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “These projects will catalyze the commercialization of promising technologies so that they are available to be broadly deployed across the country in support of reaching our clean energy future.”

Maggie Haslam contributed to this article.



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