Transparent wood may be a sustainable alternative for glass or plastic used for making windshields, see-through packaging and biomedical devices.

Transparent wood could be a sustainable plastic replacement, scientists say

Image credit: Anish M. Chathoth.

Transparent wood could be used for making more sustainable car windshields, see-through packaging and biomedical devices, according to a study.

The renewable and biodegradable properties of transparent wood could make the material a promising and environmentally friendly substitute for glass or plastic.

In a study published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, a team of researchers said transparent wood generates approximately 24 per cent less global warming potential and about 15 per cent less terrestrial acidification than other petrol-based materials. 

The research also showed producing transparent wood is five times more efficient than glass. 

“Transparent wood as a material can replace the environmentally harmful petroleum-based plastics such as polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylic, polyethylene etc,” said Prodyut Dhar, an author of the study and assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology’s biochemical engineering school.

The world currently produces around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, with increasing levels of single-use plastic which is used and then discarded, according to the UN Environment Programme

If no action is taken, plastic production is expected to double over the next 20 years, also doubling the amount leaked into the ocean each year. 

A potential alternative, transparent wood, was originally fabricated in 1992 by German scientist Siegfried Fink and has since been improved upon by other researchers.

Transparent wood is made by removing the lignin content in wood and replacing it with transparent, plastic materials. Lignin is a naturally occurring biopolymer which supports plant tissue, which unlike plastics can biodegrade and is non-toxic.

Transparent wood has a similar strength as that of regular wood but is lighter in weight.

“Plastics are used as a substitute for glass which is (naturally) fragile. However, transparent wood is an even better alternative from an ecological perspective, as observed in our life-cycle analysis,” said Dhar.

The end-of-life analysis suggests that transparent wood is less environmentally friendly than glass, but is still better than producing more polyethylene, indicating the need to improve the production technology, the authors said.

“In recent times, transparent wood has been used in construction, energy storage, flexible electronics and packaging applications,” said Anish Chathoth, a transparent wood researcher at the Institute of Wood Science and Technology, Bangalore. 

He added that “given the growing concerns about the environmental impact of petroleum-based plastic materials, transparent wood has a role in maintaining environmental sustainability”.

Plastic pollution has become the scourge of the global environment, but there is new research actively committed to finding solutions, including cutting-edge alternatives and engineering innovations in waste management and processing.

A recent Greenpeace survey found that, collectively, UK households throw nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic waste into the bin every year and only 12 per cent of this plastic waste is likely to be recycled at reprocessing facilities in the UK. 

In June 2022, councillors at Cheshire West and Chester Council unanimously green-lit the £165m park to be developed at Protos, which is expected to recycle 367,500 tonnes of plastic, helping to slash carbon emissions on the road to net zero.

Meanwhile, University of Queensland researchers identified a species of worm with an appetite for polystyrene that could be the key to plastic recycling on a mass scale. The common Zophobas morio ‘superworm’ can eat through polystyrene, thanks to a bacterial enzyme in their gut.

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