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FutureTech: technology to shape woodworking's next decade.

Wood & Wood Products' mission has always included reporting on new technology. In this article, and in Part 2 coming next month, we take a step beyond to report on technologies currently being researched at universities, research labs, industry companies or collaborations of all three.

This month, we examine research in two areas. First, a new tooling development that may allow diamond tooling to be used for very small, very detailed profiles. Then, genetic engineering, which might help build a better and more abundant wood supply.

Naturally, FutureTech is speculative in nature. The advances described may or may not come to pass, and there are undoubtedly other developments corning that are not included. We invite readers and researchers to send their comments and share their work by e-mailing

Diamond Coatings Are a Small, Complex Tool's Best Friend


Small size tooling for cutting intricate profiles has always been a challenge for woodworking tool manufacturers. Carbide is the only base metal substrate that tooling manufacturers have at their disposal for such an application. Currently, polycrystalline diamond cannot be used because the size of the diamond crystals is too large.

Research has been performed for approximately six years to develop a crystal vapor deposition process using nanocrystalline diamond. The process involves the application of a high temperature plasma deposition. In other words, a thin layer of diamond is sprayed onto various types of standard profile tool bodies made of materials such as tungsten carbide to assure full tool coverage and adhesion.

"While the CVD process is not new, the concept of using nanocrystals is something that has never been done before for this type of tooling," says David Freund, president of Saber Diamond Tools Inc. "This process will be totally new for the woodworking industry.

"It allows an extremely intricate or very small size tool body to be made from tungsten carbide and then a coating of diamond can be put on the tool to significantly increase effectiveness and extend the life," Freund says.

Preparing for Market

Saber began its involvement in the development of this process two years ago with the intention of developing a new type of diamond tooling product. The company has been working with its joint venture partners StellarTron and Altamont in order to bring the product to market.

Both CVD diamond coatings and PCD traditionally contain diamond crystals that are several microns. in diameter. The new nanocrystalline CVD diamond coatings contain crystals that are only about one-hundredth that size, which allows them to be stacked on smaller tooling.

"For comparison, it is like making a layer of diamond out of crystals that are the size of a beach ball versus making a layer of crystals the size of marbles," says Freund.

Saber, StellarTron and Altamont are currently in the testing performance phase. According to Freund, the testing has shown significant advantages in certain applications.

The smaller nanocrystals are more closely packed, which means a dense layer of diamond is applied with fewer "voids." There is more penetration of the diamond into the substrate of the carbide tool body so that the diamond layer is "locked" onto the surface. This reduces chipping and flaking of the diamond. The tighter packing of this type of diamond results in a smoother surface, which reduces friction and generates less heat.

A combination of the diamond density and closer packing of crystals results in a more accurate cutting edge and better performance.

When and on What

"We are performing testing in many areas, but one significant area is in drilling applications," says Freund. "The fact that drilling applications such as scrolling or carving involve smaller tools with complex geometries has made using POD impossible. We have had promising results in this area with the CVD process that uses nanocrystalline diamond.

"We have also tested it on drilling and routing tools for use on such wood products as MDF," continues Freund. "The tools take a considerable amount of time to make and the materials are expensive, which results in more expensive tools."

The nanocrystalline CVD process is less time consuming to put on tooling and less costly to apply, which in turn makes it more cost effective.

Saber plans to concentrate at first only on releasing tooling that gives the best results in testing.

Testing should be completed early next year, making CVD nanocrystalline diamond coated tools available next spring, according to Saber.

"After we have completed testing we may choose, for instance, the best two performing tools to bring to market first," says Freund. "Then we will add others as more testing, results and time dictate.

"This nanocrystalline diamond coating also is not expected to be a replacement or substitute for POD tooling, but to be used in some new application areas where it is difficult or impossible to use POD due to the geometry of the tool," says Freund.

Project: Crystal Vapor Deposition (CVD) process using nanocrystalline diamond on tooling.

R&D by: Saber Diamond Tools and its joint venture companies: StellarTron, a spin off of the University of Illinois, and Altamont, a woodworking company.

Goals: Enables a diamond tool to be made with very intricate profiles and allows very sharp edges to be formed.

Approximate time to market: Late spring 2003.

Building a Better Hardwood


Small insects like the peach borer are a big problem for black cherry trees. They eat the tree's bark and cambium, and may interfere with the circulation of water and nutrients.

Researchers at Purdue University hope something even smaller, DNA, is the key to fighting the insect -- and making a host of other improvements to hardwood quality and quantity.

Charles Michler is director of the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center at Purdue. "We're working at various scientific levels of tree improvement, using both classical breeding and genomics, to identify genes for traits that we are interested in," he says.

In other words, researchers at the HTIRC hope to develop black walnut trees that have a higher percentage of heartwood, black cherries that resist insect infestations, northern red oaks that grow faster and yield more timber, and samples of all three species that resist herbicides to make hardwood plantations more practical.

Test-Tube Trees

Driven by the pulp and paper industry, genetic research on cottonwoods and poplars has been occuring for about a decade. Furniture wood research, however, is still in its early stages. The HTIRC opened in 1998 and was not fully staffed until 1999. Michler says HTIRC is the only facility researching genetic engineering of furniture-grade hardwoods.

Scientists at the center have not begun altering genes yet. They have taken the first step and developed a technique to clone black walnut and black cherry embryos.

Cloning the trees is an important step because it allows the researchers to create exact copies of tree embryos. "We plan to insert genes into the cells at these very early stages," Michler says. "Through a selective agent we are able to grow cells that have the gene -- we can use them to produce an embryo that germinates into a new seedling."

The first gene researchers plan to implant will provide resistance to a wide range of herbicides. "Herbicide resistance is important for hardwoods because establishment in plantations depends on weed resistance in the first three years after planting," Michler says.

There are several steps in the research from there. Michler says that the HTIRC hopes to begin studies of genetically modified seedlings within several months. After that, researchers will test them in greenhouses and finally in the field. "We'll be doing considerable field testing, both to test the ability of the transgenes to function and to do a risk assessment of the ecological concerns," Michler says.

Protest Potential

Ecological concerns, whether real or imagined, are probably the most significant barrier for this technology to overcome.

"There is much discussion right now among groups interested in having the trees and groups who want to be sure there is no environmental consequence," Michler says. That includes meetings among university and government scientists and policy-makers.

Environmental groups are widely opposed to genetic engineering in general -- widespread protests greeted the introduction of genetically engineered crops a few years ago -- and some have vandalized and destroyed tree research.

Their claim is that genetically modified trees may breed with natural stands with unknown consequences. Michler says the research includes controlling seed production so genetically modified trees cannot breed with natural trees. "In most cases," he says, "a tree is not going to be deployed if it's not sterile."

Ultimately, the market will decide. "At the end of the day, the use of these trees will depend on public acceptance" Michler says.

Project: Genetically engineered hardwoods.

R&D by: Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center, a cooperative project between Purdue University and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Goals: Improve heartwood yield and insect resistance. Also improve herbicide resistance to make plantations possible. Current or planned work includes black walnut, black cherry and northern red oak

Approximate time to market: 10 years.
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Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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