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A troubled industry needs research today to survive into tomorrow.

Knowledge of the chemistry of wood has permitted industrial forestry and forest products manufacturing to expand dramatically throughout the 20th century. An understanding of wood's complex carbohydrates has allowed preparation of regenerated cellulose (rayon), cellulose derivatives such as cellulose acetate, and, of course, wood pulp for newsprint and other papers.

Less well-known is the contribution that the extractives, those compounds extraneous to the lignocellulose complex, have made to an understanding of wood properties, and hence wood use. Certain extractives have profoundly affected pulping, particularly by the sulphite processes, while others have been shown to react with metals to cause discoloration and corrosion. Extractives have not only affected chemical conversion of wood, but have influenced the use and behavior of solid wood products. For example, location and composition of wood extractives have been related to heartwood color and decay resistance. Migration of extractives during wood drying of some species may cause unsightly straining at the surface of lumber. An understanding of this phenomenon and the composition of the extractive has led to its control. Of current interest is taxol, the bark extractive obtained from the lowly yew tree, because of its value in cancer treatment. Biologists have also learned to depend on extractives as an aid in taxonomic classification of species that otherwise present difficulties in separation.

The forest products industry is undergoing some fundamental restructuring, suggesting limits to its future growth. However, among the new processes on the horizon is organosolv pulping, which promises to deliver cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and extractives as separate entities, without the fragmentation and substitution products common in conventional pulping. Another process sparking renewed interest is wood hydrolysis as a means to ethanol production. Enzymatic and organosolv hydrolysis methods can deliver higher yields of fermentable sugars, and retain an intriguing lignin structure. However, after a century of biological and chemical research, lignin derivatives still remain underutilized for purposes of higher value than as an industrial fuel. Perhaps these new processes will give impetus to renewed research on lignin as a chemical feedstock for a number of phenolic products.

Wood is the world's leading renewable plant resource and it requires relatively little energy to convert it to useful structural materials, and to energy itself in the form of solid or liquid fuels. Foresters are capable of increasing yields by two to 10 times, using advanced silvicultural methods. An understanding of wood chemistry has served us well in the past; more complete knowledge should help secure a place for new and improved products in the future.

Dr. Roben W., Kennedy is the Vice-Chairman of the B.C. Forest Resources Commission, and was Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia from 1983 to 1990. Prior to that, he was the Director of the Western Forest Products Laboratory of Environment Canada.
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Title Annotation:forest products industry
Author:Kennedy, Robert W.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:466
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