This article originally appeared on REMODELING's sister site, BUILDER.

Scientist Liangbing Hu (left) holds a block of wood transformed by a new process to become tougher than steel. Teng Li (right) holds an untreated block of the same wood.
University of Maryland Scientist Liangbing Hu (left) holds a block of wood transformed by a new process to become tougher than steel. Teng Li (right) holds an untreated block of the same wood.

Engineers at the University of Maryland have found a way to make wood more than ten times times stronger and tougher than before, creating a natural substance that is stronger than many titanium alloys.

“This new way to treat wood makes it 12 times stronger than natural wood and ten times tougher,” says Maryland professor Liangbing Hu, the leader of the team that did the research, which was published in the journal Nature. “This could be a competitor to steel or even titanium alloys, it is so strong and durable. It’s also comparable to carbon fiber, but much less expensive.”

“It is both strong and tough, which is a combination not usually found in nature,” says engineering professor Teng Li, the co-leader of the team, which measured the dense wood’s mechanical properties. “It is as strong as steel, but six times lighter. It takes 10 times more energy to fracture than natural wood. It can even be bent and molded at the beginning of the process.”

The team’s process begins by removing the wood’s lignin, the part of the wood that makes it both rigid and brown in color. Then it is compressed under mild heat, at about 150 F. This causes the cellulose fibers to become very tightly packed. Any defects like holes or knots are crushed together. The treatment process was extended a little further with a coat of paint.

Magnified images of untreated wood (left) and wood treated by a new process invented by engineers at the University of Maryland that compresses the natural structures of wood into a new material five times thinner (right).
University of Maryland Magnified images of untreated wood (left) and wood treated by a new process invented by engineers at the University of Maryland that compresses the natural structures of wood into a new material five times thinner (right).

The scientists found that the wood’s fibers are pressed together so tightly that they can form strong hydrogen bonds, like a crowd of people who can’t budge – who are also holding hands, they say. The compression makes the wood five times thinner than its original size.

The team tested the new wood material and natural wood by shooting bullet-like projectiles at it. The projectile blew straight through the natural wood. The fully treated wood stopped the projectile partway through.

“Soft woods like pine or balsa, which grow fast and are more environmentally friendly, could replace slower-growing but denser woods like teak, in furniture or buildings,” Hu says. “This kind of wood could be used in cars, airplanes, buildings – any application where steel is used.”