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April 9, 2009 11:56 AM

Innovation Summit: Using wood to build airplanes, again

Posted by Brier Dudley

Talk about back to the future.

During an Innovation Summit session this morning on cutting edge materials, a Canadian researcher described new nanotechnology for modifying cellulose.

Designs have been done for a factory that could extract nanocrystalline cellulose particles that are 20 nanometers long and 20 nanometers wide. The factory could produce a ton of this material a day, said Jim Dangerfield, executive vice president of FPInnovations, a research organizationn exploring new directions for Canada's forestry industry.

The characteristics of this material depend on which plant it comes from, whether cotton or spruce, for instance. Combined with other materials it could potentially have aerospace applications, he said.

"My dream is that one day we'll be making airplanes out of this material again," he said during the panel discussion at the Bellevue summit, organized by the Washington Technology Center.

Boeing's advanced materials boss didn't rule it out. In response to a question, Gerould Young, director of materials & structures technology at Boeing Research & Technology, noted that airplane construction began with wood and fabrics, moved to aluminum and is now jumping to polymers and fibers.

The carbon fiber in the 787 can be considered version one of this new approach.

"As we look to the future you're going to get more optimized configuration out of that material system," Young said. "We're looking at all sorts of things."

Fibers used in planes could be natural fibers or carbon nanotubes, he said.

"I think you're going to see really a revolution in that material as you go forward," Young said. "It will be significant over time, what we take out in terms of weight, and ultimately (contribute to) the performance of our aircraft."

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