At the same time, research institutions are exploring a range of options to increase plantation timbers for the manufacture of innovative wood products.

The Cooperative Research Centre (CRC)-for Wood Innovations, based in Melbourne and affiliated with major players in Australia’s timber industry, Melbourne University, CSIRO Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology, and the Institute of Design at Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, is focusing on research into innovation, design and the use of wood as a sustainable resource.

The CRC-Wood Innovations is investigating the properties of microwave energy and its influence on wood modification. Microwaving timber relieves growth stresses in logs and sawn timber and improves wood permeability.  

“This technology has the potential to not only reduce drying time of timber from months to a matter of days, but also to change the properties of timber to improve its strength, stability and durability,” said Associate Professor Barbara Ozarska, Program Manager.

CRC researchers at CSIRO Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology are also investigating the “surface engineering” of machined wood for enhancing adhesion and the long-term retention of glues and surface coatings.

This will enable the use of “difficult to glue” timber species for the manufacture of both structural and high value appearance wood products. It will also enable their use in outdoor applications.

New wood composites

The CRC-Wood Innovations has developed an ‘engineered’ wood material made from ‘low value’ timber, such as heartwood timber from softwoods and young Australian blue gum, timbers previously deemed unsuitable for use in the furniture industry. 

According to Professor Ozarska, researchers are developing a process where microwave expanded wood is impregnated with various environmentally friendly resins, then compressed and cured. The product retains the appearance of solid wood.  

“This ‘engineered’ product, called VintorgTM, exhibits increased stiffness and improved dimensional stability, durability and hardness in comparison with the original timber.”

Colour stains or finishes can be incorporated through the expanded wood matrix and the resin to create a uniformly coloured final product.  

Designers at Swinburne University of Technology – looking at different wood species and different resins – have defined a range of desirable material specifications in line with industry requirements.

According to Swinburne’s Dr Lyndon Anderson, the intensity of microwave treatment and the careful selection of resins will make it possible to produce ‘made to order’ composite timber products.

“This new timber composite will have greater strength, increased durability, increased performance uniformity, greater dimensional stability and provide more efficient use of our timber resource.

“But it still has the look and feel of timber with the increased performance of a modified wood product.”

VintorgTM has been successfully made from a variety of timbers, including radiata pine, spruce, and a number of Eucalyptus species such as messmate, blue gum, mountain ash and alpine ash. This process has produced successful results in all wood species so far.

Another exciting area of research at the CRC-Wood Innovations is the production of timber components from young fast grown Australian furniture timbers.

The research is focused on the use of microwave technology for timber softening and drying to decrease the bending time and modifying timber to improve its bending characteristics.

Researchers plan to experiment with very tight and complex bends, which could be used in design and manufacture of furniture on an industrial scale.

The use of microwave heating significantly reduces the softening time. Where large cross sections of furniture components requiring pre-treatment may take hours with a traditional steaming method, the new process can reduce it to minutes.  

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