170704 Jämtland, Sweden Avverkning av SCA skog mellan Våle och Revsund, i Jämtland. 62° 51' 22.926" N 14° 58' 59.208" E

Photo by: Christian Aslund / EyeEm

Christian Aslund / EyeEm

Could Growing Wood be Quicker and Greener Than Cutting Down Forests?

By: Robin Fearon

Wood is one of mankind’s most precious resources, but deforestation from logging and agricultural clearance has caused real harm to the environment.

April 19, 2021

Science appears to have found an alternative to chopping down trees: wood grown in the laboratory. Industrial-scale cell-cultured wood could offer a way to grow what we need without losing our forests.

Historically, lumber has advanced mankind’s development through its use in building houses, making tools, furniture, and the ships that opened up sea routes for exploration and trade. Now, researchers at MIT have found a way to grow wood without sunlight or soil in petri dishes, in a similar way to cell-cultured meat, which could create wood products while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Lab-grown wood has the potential to revolutionize furniture-making by using techniques like 3D bioprinting to create printed or molded parts. Growing a square board or even a tabletop with legs cuts out the entire process of cultivating trees, chopping them down, cutting planks and transporting between the forest, sawmill, and furniture factory.

Relying on forested trees for lumber is a long, wasteful, and labor-intensive process. As little as two to four per cent of the harvested plant is eventually used in the production of some natural fibers. “Trees grow in tall cylindrical poles, and we rarely use tall cylindrical poles in industrial applications,” said co-author of MIT’s paper on cell-cultured wood, Ashley Beckwith. “So you end up shaving off a bunch of material that you spent 20 years growing and that ends up being a waste product.”



Zinnia flower

Photo by: Images from BarbAnna

Images from BarbAnna

Zinnia flower

In the lab, live cells are extracted from a zinnia plant–a daisy-like flower, native to Mexico–and cultured to produce lignin, a major chemical component of wood. Further, fine-tuning the types of plant tissues created and mass-producing them could reduce the need for logging, along with its associated waste and loss of habitat.

Industrial lumber production creates carbon emissions as roads are built into forests, trees are felled and transported to the sawmill. More emissions are created when they are sawed up into planks and transported to factories to be turned into wood products. Additional wood waste, such as leaves, branches, wood chips, and off-cuts mean that much of the tree goes unused.



Photo by: Zia Soleil

Zia Soleil

Culturing wood in the laboratory is still at an early proof stage, but Beckwith revealed that growing pieces to the size of a coffee table might take only a few months–compared to a tree that might take two decades to reach maturity.

Meanwhile, logging and land clearance for agriculture are responsible for the destruction of large tracts of the world’s rainforest–around 15 billion trees are felled each year. Responsible forest management can be productive and protect wildlife habitat, but illegal logging, slash-and-burn operations, and clearcutting–felling all trees in a region–for profit, can devastate wildlife, rare plant species, and woodland habitat.



Baumstämme am Wegesrand nach Sturmschaden, Symbolfoto

Photo by: Frank Günther

Frank Günther

The world has lost a third of its forest cover in the past 10,000 years — roughly equivalent to an area twice the size of the United States, and half of that loss occurred in the past 120 years. If lab-grown wood can tackle environmental destruction and climate change in the same way that experts think cell-cultured meat will, then it is worth pursuing.

Alternatives to harvested wood for furniture production, like this and fungal mycelium could preserve forests. Woodland and rainforest would then be able to return to a natural carbon cycle and their essential role as home for 70 percent of plant and animal species can continue.

Next Up

Disaster Zone Technology Gives Rescue Missions the Edge

Disaster zones operate on tight timelines. Minutes, or even seconds, can be the difference between life and death when people are trapped by rubble, collapsed buildings, or rising waters.

Emotional Robots: Machines that Recognize Human Feelings

Bridging the gap between simple automation and robots that can empathize and interact with humans naturally is a big challenge, but major progress has been made in the past few years.

Get #Mindblown on National STEM/STEAM Day

Happy National STEM/STEAM Day! Here are fun and easy ways to inspire the next generation of budding innovators.

Digital Twins are a Virtual Replica of Everything

Imagine a world where every car or plane, every patient, every building, or even entire cities have their own virtual, real-time computerized replica--a digital double.

Wildfire Challenge: Growing Investment in Firefighting Technology

Tackling rapid and destructive wildfires before they can spread over wide areas is one of the most pressing challenges for firefighters today.

Doctors and Scientists 3D-Print Living Organs

How bioprinting, the medical equivilent of 3D printing can revolutionize organ donation and beyond.

Raindrop Electricity: Generating 'Blue Energy' from Rainfall

Water-power has been used for thousands of years as a renewable energy source, so what are we doing today to make rain water work for us?

Wild Climate Ride Expected as Cryptocurrency Popularity Fuels Power Consumption

Bitcoin’s wild speculation and surging popularity has caused scientists and economic analysts to rate the digital cryptocurrency as a danger to the environment. More than 60% of Bitcoin’s mining cost is in the electricity it uses. And as its value rises, so does the entire currency’s energy consumption and its potential impact on climate change.

Soft Robots Ape Nature to Operate in the Harshest Conditions

You could be forgiven for assuming that soft robotics is simply about making robots without rough edges – a kind of warm, fuzzy android experience. If machines that hug humans are the aim, then that’s probably true, but soft robots are often designed to operate in harsh or dangerous environments where others would struggle.

Robot Army: Caring Technology Enters Mass Production to Fight Pandemic

Social robots have often been promoted as a way to give the sick and the elderly the support they lack. Now a Hong Kong robotics company wants to create an army of caring robots to provide comfort, solace, and healthcare to people isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.