Wood has been the building block of some of the world’s greatest architectural feats for thousands of years. As architects as engineers look for more sustainable, eco-friendly materials to build with, new research has brought the material back into the forefront, now in an entirely unexpected way.

Wood is an incredibly strong and versatile building material, though it has its drawbacks. The material tends to rot, get eaten by bugs, and blocks the passage of light. However, plain sheets of glass are not much better, as they tend to break easily and allow a large amount of energy to leak into or out of a building. Recently, engineers have figured out how to have the visibility of glass and the strength of wood by creating something entirely new: see-through wood.

Transparent Wood
Image credit: University of Maryland

Transparent wood could be future in eco-friendly building materials

In an interesting new process, a group of researchers at the University of Maryland have managed to strip away wood’s distinctive colors and instead make it transparent. While it seems like it may be an incredibly complicated process to do so, it only involves two steps in order to turn a block of wood into what what looks like a block of plastic. Obviously, scientists are quite excited about the implications of this new procedure.

The “invisible wood” is stronger than traditional wood, and it could potentially be used in place of less environmentally friendly materials, such as plastics. In a world where modern architecture has been relying more and more on glass and steel, the replacement of these materials with transparent and biodegradable wood would certainly revolutionize entire design concepts, not to mention reduce fuel consumption and heating costs.

“This opens up new ideas for how to utilize wood not only as a structural material but also as a functional material,” says Dr. Lars Berglund, head of the division of biocomposites at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “By using his modification approach we can preserve the attractive features of wood, like low density and high strength, and make wood a much more advanced building material.”

What is the process in making wood transparent?

So how is it made? The exact steps necessary to clarify wood is obviously a tightly-kept secret at the moment, but Marth Heil, a University of Maryland Nanocenter spokesperson, told Business Insider that the process uses bleach, epoxy, and of course wood.

To turn the wood transparent, the wood first needs to be boiled in a bath of water, sodium hydroxide, and other chemicals for 10 minutes for a very thin piece of wood and up to 24 hours for a small log. This step removes a molecule called lignin, which gives wood its color. However, the colorless cell structures of the wood are left behind.

The next step is to pour epoxy over the newly transparent block of wood, which makes the wood four to six times stronger than before. This step turns the porous tubes of cellulose in wood – which normally suck up water toward leaves and pull sugars down towards roots – into highly efficient light diffusers.

“You have a uniform consistent indoor lighting, which is…independent of where the sun is,” materials scientist Tian Li said. This would allow light that is not even hitting the wood at a direct angle to fully illuminate the transparent wood.

Researchers hope the discovery will reinvent wood as the next step in renewable building materials, and usher in a new era of green and eco-friendly construction.