A modern-day alchemy, which converts wood waste into timber boards indistinguishable from 100-year-old hardwood, has been turned into a business that is also protecting native forests in Australia, Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Flinders University Professor David Lewis developed the process, which he has commercialised in partnership with Bosch Manufacturing Solutions through a company called 3RT. They are preparing to market the product around the world.
“The name comes from the three Rs, which stand for recycle, reuse, repurpose timber,” says Professor Lewis, a polymers expert.
The technology had its genesis in an earlier project of Professor Lewis's creating strand-woven flooring – itself now a common material used around the world.
The current product, called Designer Hardwood, can be worked in the same way as natural hardwood but is made from logs that would otherwise be turned into wood chips.
The raw material comes from the first thinning of plantation forests, when the trees are about 10 centimetres in diameter and every second one is removed to let the remainder grow.
“You can't get useful boards out of the smaller diameter trees,” says Professor Lewis. “Typically they are chipped and turned into pulp and paper. Sometimes they are chipped and put into particle board, or even just burned.”
While this doesn’t matter so much with pine, which is fast-growing and plentiful, they represent very low value applications for hardwood timber.
“So instead of chipping them, we peel these logs like an apple to get the veneer. Then we glue these veneers back together and apply pressure and temperature to get a big block of consolidated timber.
“We can then cut that into boards and panels and whatever other configuration that you’d like.”
The whole process takes no more than 30 minutes and the finished product behaves just like the real thing.
“It's very similar to conventional hardwood, so it machines the same way, cuts the same way, gives splinters the same way,” says Professor Lewis. “If you saw a piece of normal hardwood and you don't tape up the back, you end up with micro fibres at the back of the cut. And the 3RT wood does exactly the same thing, so it machines and processes almost identically to traditional hardwoods.”
So far Professor Lewis and his team have applied the process to more than 50 different species of tree including blackbutt, jarrah, birch, maple, oak and a wide range of eucalyptus, as well as increasingly scarce tropical hardwoods such as teak and mahogany.