Forest innovation has long been tied to technology. Now there's nanotechnology. What is this new field and what can it do for the forest sector?

Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level—specifically, matter that's 1 to 100 nanometres in size. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre. To conceive of that, imagine a red blood cell; then imagine a particle a million times smaller.

Particles at this tiny size behave differently than larger particles. Studying this behaviour, and learning how to control it, can open the door to some exciting innovations. That's why Canada's federal and provincial governments have invested more than $640 million in nanotechnology research in the past decade.

Nanocrystalline cellulose nanotube

Nanocrystalline cellulose nanotube that carries molecules with chemistry specific functions.

Wood deck

Wood deck.

The following are some advancements nanotechnology may bring to the forest sector.

Better wood treatments

  • UV protection – Nanotechnology can be used to produce coatings that alter wood's structure, increasing its resistance to ultraviolet light.
  • Moisture and decay resistance – Water repellants based on nanotechnology can penetrate wood's structure far better than conventional treatments. They can also protect against decay, fungus, swelling and shrinking, and they're resistant to cleaning products and high-pressure washers.
  • Pesticides – Pesticides in the form of nanoemulsions come in tiny droplets (in the size range of 20-200 nanometres) that can be deposited more uniformly on plant leaves. Nanoemulsions also deliver more particles per spray than conventional emulsions, so it takes less pesticide to do the job.

Innovative paper products

  • Conductive paper – Applying a layer-by-layer nanocoating to wood fibres can create a type of paper that conducts electricity. Nanocoated wood fibres and paper may be used to manufacture electronic devices, such as capacitors and transistors, at a low cost. They may also lead to “smart paper” for use in sensors and communication devices.
  • Quality paper – Layer-by-layer nanocoating also has the potential to improve paper brightness and porosity. Other nanotechnology processes can modify paper characteristics such as opacity, transparency, printability, water permeability and colourfastness.
Photo 1: Colour in nanocrystalline cellulose films. Photo 2: Porosity in nanocrystalline cellulose films. Photo 3: Opacity in nanocrystalline cellulose films

Photo 1: Colour in nanocrystalline cellulose films.
Photo 2: Porosity in nanocrystalline cellulose films.
Photo 3: Opacity in nanocrystalline cellulose films.

Environmental benefits

  • Nanofiltration – Filtering water at the nano-level makes it possible to separate ions very selectively. Nanofiltration has excellent potential to reduce the effluents in pulp and paper waste water. This would enable industry to recycle more waste water and consume less fresh water.
  • Reduction of emissions – Researchers are investigating whether nanotechnology might lead to new energy technologies and other innovations that could reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. By promoting a healthier environment for Canada's forests, these developments would benefit the forest sector as well.

Funding nanotechnology for the forest sector

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service is investing $3 million a year over 3 years (2007–2009) in developing nanotechnology products and processes for the forest sector. Specific R&D projects are being carried out by FPInnovations—Canada's primary forest research institute—and its research partners.

Enhancing Canadian wood products

Foreign manufacturers are exporting more wood products than ever into markets traditionally supplied by the Canadian industry. For example, China has expanded its share of the U.S. market for imported wooden windows and doors from 0.5% in 2001 to 13% in 2007. Nanotechnologies and nanomaterials could distinguish Canadian wood products from low-cost alternatives on the basis of quality.