WSU Lab On Cutting Edge For 50 Years — Researchers Contemplate Woods Made Of Wheat, Plastic And, Yes, Trees

By Ted McDonough, Staff Writer, Moscow-Pullman Daily News

If you have a roof over your head, and that roof was built after 1950, Washington State University’s Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory likely had something to do with it.

One of the birth places of particleboard, and of the I-joist now used to frame one-third of new homes, the laboratory, since 1949, has continuously reinvented uses of wood for building.

This week the laboratory held its 33rd International Particleboard/Composite Materials Symposium and celebrated 50 years of success and a future of new challenges that include creating building materials that combine plastics with wood to create products that are durable and free of maintenance.

The history of the Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory development is told in a 50th anniversary edition of a laboratory history written by Thomas Maloney, who served as the laboratory’s second director from 1972 to 1995.

Founded in 1949 under George Marra, director until 1972, the engineering college’s Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory took off in the late 1950s when the particleboard industry was beginning, Maloney writes in his history.

Most companies then opening particleboard plants relied on the WSU laboratory for research into materials they planned to use.

With more than 27 patents, the laboratory has to its credit early work on many now ubiquitous composite wood building products, including particleboard, fiberboard and laminated veneer lumber. It is recognized as a leader in the area of nondestructive testing of wood products.

In 1973, WSU researcher Roy Pellerin, the laboratory’s third director, formed a testing equipment company, Metriguard, which now is a world leader in supplying testing equipment to the forest products industry.

In the 1970s, the laboratory set for itself the goal of performing the research that would allow industry to produce four times the usable material from forest products as previously possible.

Today that goal is close to being accomplished. In the United States alone, 1998 production of particleboard and fiberboard from raw material that in 1949 was waste or wood species not suitable for use in standard lumber products was more than 6 billion board feet, according to Maloney’s history. The Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory is unique because of its strong engineering emphasis and its links to industry, said Don Bender, laboratory director since 1997.

Currently laboratory work includes a multi-million dollar Navy-sponsored project to create replacement materials for decaying wood piers in Naval ports.

The laboratory is concentrating on new products that are durable, efficient and inexpensive.

One ongoing project tests insulated panels made of polystyrene foam cores sandwiched between strandboard panels for use as an energy-efficient wood framing material.

Durability is an issue of increasing importance, Bender said, with consumers demanding building materials that don’t require much maintenance. Plastic-wood combinations are one way laboratory faculty are trying to meet the demand.

Immediate future challenges for the laboratory include providing sustainable source of building materials for industry that also are “sustainable in the environmental sense,” Bender said.

That means experimentation with plantation grown trees and new sources of raw material, such as crop residue.

This week researchers will submit a grant proposal through the INEEL to allow research specifically on use of wheat as a building material. Wheat places natural obstacles in the way of those who would like to use the crop as a building material, Bender said. A waxy surface on the crop makes binding wheat difficult with traditional adhesives.

WSU scientists would like to examine a process using biological agents to pre-treat wheat straw and break down the waxy layer.

A second stumbling block to wheat becoming a commercially viable raw material for building is a predictable, year round supply. Issues related to collection and storage of the produce need to be studied, Bender said