Today’s heavily industrialized world puts a tremendous strain on the Earth’s resources. Lumber is one of the many things that is discussed when it comes to overutilization. Researchers from Draper Laboratory have an interesting solution.
They want to grow wood in labs to help address problems like deforestation, Digital Trends reports. It’s an interesting approach that could one day be very useful. For now, it is more of a scientific experiment that is pushing the limits of what can be grown in labs.
The team published its work in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
It is safe to say that the Earth has already mastered the skill of growing trees. Our planet provides us with billions of tons of wood per year. However, humanity’s resource utilization often takes things too far, leaving forests in jeopardy. That’s a problem not only for the air we breathe but also for the delicate ecosystems supported by rainforests.
The Draper research team believes that growing wood in labs is a win-win solution. Humans could still harvest plenty of wood for things like building and making paper while the Earth’s forests are able to recover.
Jeffery Borenstein, the lab’s technical director, tells Digital Trends, “A lot of what you’re seeing here is a convergence of engineering and biology in ways that people didn’t imagine even just a few years ago.”
The idea of growing wood in a lab isn’t that much different than growing meat—something that has rapidly caught on in the past few years. Researchers can cultivate plant tissues that closely resemble what a tree would produce naturally. The process is also considerably faster than growing trees in soil. Interestingly, the wood can be grown in almost any shape with the right scaffold
“Imagine, for example, growing a stronger wooden table in one solid piece. No tree planting, milling, transportation, soil, or sunlight necessary,” Digital Trend’s Luke Dormehl says.
Slow and Steady
Currently, the Draper team is using the zinnia plant, part of the daisy family, to test its process. It recently provided a proof-of-concept demonstration, cultivating the plant tissue in a petri dish with a liquid growth medium.
From there, the researchers can further tweak the process. Using lignin, a naturally occurring polymer, the team was able to make the resulting plant tissue more rigid.
The approach is promising. However, it will likely be several years before it sees any real-world applications. Dr. Ashley Beckwith, another Draper researcher, tells Digital Trends, “We’re probably still some ways off, but hopefully not at the scale of decades. We could see some significant developments… I think you could see developments in the decade that are very, very significant.”
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how this idea develops. Despite the promise of lab-grown meat, many fear that consumers won’t adopt it because it is too strange. Although the concept is nearly the same, lab-grown wood could see much easier adoption due to the fact that it isn’t being eaten.
It is certainly a technology that’s worth monitoring in the years to come. Perhaps one day we can let trees live while continuing to build what we need with lab-grown resources.