A young French architect unveils a groundbreaking approach to tackling climate change.
For developing a patented technology to infuse wood with a bio-based monomer that makes it three times as strong, French architect and biologist Timothée Boitouzet won the MIT Innovator Award in 2016. The product, translucent wood, is not only getting attention from the film industry but it is also promising to revolutionize the construction industry worldwide.
“The construction industry is responsible for 2.5 billion tons of carbon emissions each year. This is more than is emitted by all the cars being driven on earth”, Boitouzet points out. “By 2030, there will be six billion people living in cities. We will have to find new materials and new building technologies to build denser, higher cities, yet with more consideration for the environment.” As a twenty-year-old architecture student in Kyoto, Japan, he developed an interest in wood as a construction material. “Wood was designed by nature over 420 million years ago. The design is super well done”, says Boitouzet.
“Wood is the only construction material that grows by itself and stores CO2 in its structure.” When a tree grows, it emits oxygen and it stores CO2 in its cellular matrix. “This is unique because, instead of making new materials and emitting CO2 in order to erect buildings, you can use wood and store CO2 within buildings”, says the young architect, who came to the conclusion that wood is the material of the future.
But wood has four limits: “It burns, it rots, you cannot build very high with it, and wood is expensive because it has to be varnished every three years. It oxidizes with exposure to air and humidity, and it turns grey. It’s difficult to maintain wood.” Boitouzet decided to use a microscope to examine the material more closely. He went to Harvard to study
Molecular Biology and Material Science in order to focus on wood and learn how to enhance its properties.
“Wood consists of 60%–90% air. After a tree is cut down and the wood is dried, the structure becomes completely empty. As an architect, I tried to understand the structure of the material, namely, how it’s made and what holds it together.” Boitouzet extracted a compound called lignin from the wood and then infused the cellular matrix with a bio-based monomer. “It makes the wood super strong, stiff, and sturdy.”
Since he patented this technology in 2015, his Paris-based company Woodoo plans to develop new patents. Due to this transformative process, the wood becomes translucent. “The optical quality of this material also enables us to tackle different markets, such as the luxury furnishings and design industries.” Woodoo is already getting requests from the film industry. “The material possesses desirable aesthetic qualities for set decoration because the translucent wood filters light differently.” Leveraging low-grade wood, Woodoo can produce a material that is both performative and competitive. Nowadays, the wood used for set construction is typically treated with toxic chemicals in order to make it waterproof and fire resistant. “Our alternative is fully sustainable and recyclable”, emphasizes the inventor.
Timothée Boitouzet says transluent wood is the construction material for the future
“Wood is one of the most ancient materials and it has been used throughout human history, but it can also be the most futuristic for the twenty-first century”, concludes Boitouzet. “If the nine- teenth was the century of steel, and the twentieth of concrete, then the twenty-first will be the century of wood in the building industry and construction technologies.”