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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Forest products honored

By Lynn Davis

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 09 - October 20, 1994

Virginia Tech's Department of Wood Science and Forest Products has put into gear a pilot steam-explosion plant that holds promise for offering additional ways to make materials more recyclable--Tech's contribution to National Forest Products Week, which runs through October 22.

"One of a kind, the `steam-explosion gun' uses high-pressure steam to explode organic wastes and materials into a sterilized, fibrous mass," according to Geza Ifju, who heads up the Wood Science Department. Garbage from Virginia Tech's dining halls, for instance, becomes a soil amendment like compost. Exploded newspaper can be de-inked, overcoming a traditional problem with ink in recycling.

Potential applications and uses run the gamut. Chitin wastes from crab shells could be used to make paper, skin-graft materials, and pharmaceuticals. Steam-exploded organic materials can be used in human and animal foods, as well as for making ethanol, butanol, and other such products.

In proclaiming the third week of October as National Forest Products Week, Congress set the theme, "America's Forest and Paper People: Improving Tomorrow's Environment," to highlight the industry's commitment to sustained environmental improvement and stewardship.

Researchers at Virginia Tech's College of Forestry and Wildlife Resources say that the average American uses the equivalent of a 100-foot tree each year, which is why well-managed forests are important to the forest-and-paper industry. "Our forests now grow nearly four times more wood each year than in 1920," Ifju states.

Americans are now recycling 40 percent of all their paper. In 1993, this translated into 36 million tons being kept out of landfills. Recovered paper fiber accounts for a third of the paper industry's total raw material supply.

Wood products scientist Ifju explains that "when comparing the total energy costs to acquire the raw material, transport, process, and use it--wood far outshines materials such as steel, concrete, brick, and plastics." And he adds, "trees are a renewable and biodegradable resource, whereas most other building materials come from non-renewable resources."