Ready for virtuous leadership. Hewers of wood

This was written in The Bible, about a both treacherous and captive people, (Joshua 9:21): Let them live; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water…

Canadians have been referred to, and have referred to themselves, somewhat self-deprecatingly, for a long time, as hewers of wood and drawers of water. In part, this has referred to our overt dependence on primary industries and resource extraction, rather than on the development of secondary industries and other forms of independence and self-respect.

But this could change. We could both continue to hew wood and to develop greater independence, simultaneously. We have a lot of wood and a lot of water, both comparatively scare commodities in today’s over-populated and over-consuming world.

I’ve actually done quite a bit of hewing of wood, as have many other Canadians. Our source of heat in northern Alberta was wood, and it had to be hewn (well, at least cut and split) before it could be burned. This tends to be much more mechanized now and various forms of wood, as a source of heat, are readily obtainable. Like pellets. And high-tech wood-burning boilers will burn wood and wood waste of many sizes. Wood gasification extends the heating capabilities of wood to include production of wood gas, which can be burned or used to produce combustion in special (or modified) engines, not unlike diesels. All of this new technology is much more efficient and adaptable to an industrial scale.

It could be argued, as it was recently in a newspaper in Norway, that Wood is the New Oil. Only, in contrast to the familiar petrochemical, this new oil is renewable and sustainable (if we are smart about it). It is also carbon-neutral. By that I mean that while wood is a repository of carbon, its decay or combustion releases the carbon but if new wood is grown to replace what is used, new carbon is captured, neutralizing what was concurrently released.

If we can continue to use wood, and to use it even more effectively, as a source of heat, that’s a pretty good start. But there is more.
Bio-resins and bio-composites: plant-based resins are being developed and produced that avoid the need for petroleum. These can be used in many of the ways that we are accustomed to seeing plastics being used. When these resins are combined with plant-based bolsters like cellulose (wood fibers), instead of inorganic ones, we are changing the game.

A related version of this was a spruce wood-fiber that I have seen used as insulation batts. It is fractured and spun in such a way as to trap air the way that Fiberglas does. Planer shavings and sawdust from my father’s sawmill were used as insulation in the absence of other options. This looks like a pretty big improvement.

Most woods have the disadvantage of being susceptible to decay. The recycling industry has produced many faux-wood materials and products from our plastic waste but they usually fail to charm and they are still dependent on petroleum by-products. Advances in wood technology, like thermally modified wood, reduce the tendency of wood to rot, thereby creating a superior product independent of noxious chemicals.

By scaling up the concept of plywood to the use of one-and-a-half-inch-thick plies, we obtain a building material (cross-laminated timber), which has made the use of wood both suitable and structurally viable for mid-rise buildings. It replaces concrete and steel, both of which consume great quantities of energy in their production. Other higher-tech materials include parallel strand lumber (PSL), and glued-laminated timber (glulam).

Nano-crystalline cellulose is a very interesting new material with broad application as an absorbent material, an emulsifier, and other uses beyond my capacity to identify or describe. It is cellulose (wood fiber) in a crystalline form. But it is getting attention for its high strength and potential new uses in advanced materials.

Wood is finding a new and improved place among our material options and Canada is very well positioned to exploit its abundant resources in a positive and innovative way. We can continue to hew wood, but from a new perspective. We will be industrious (in all senses of the word), virtuous (wood is Green) leaders in innovation and application and very productive members of a prosperous society.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design department.

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