CORVALLIS, Ore. – An inspiration that began when an Oregon State University researcher watched mussels being pounded by ocean waves has now evolved into a new wood adhesive that is creating jobs for U.S. workers, drawing interest from all over the world and leading a major shift away from formaldehyde-based composite wood products.
Academic and industry experts cite a growing interest in green, sustainable building products as part of the trend, along with stricter regulations and building standards that have been passed in California and may spread elsewhere.
Plywood panels bonded with this adhesive are being marketed as “PureBond” by Columbia Forest Products, the leading manufacturer of hardwood plywood in North America, with a significant operation in Oregon. The adhesive is also now being made available to other manufacturers, and research is continuing to explore the full range of possible uses.
“Our research has finally achieved the type of broad commercial and environmental impact that we always thought was possible,” said Kaichang Li, an associate professor of wood science and engineering at OSU, and expert in wood adhesives and composite materials.
“As more uses evolve for this adhesive, there should be even more environmental benefits,” Li said. “It’s also creating jobs here in Oregon and the U.S., and helping the North American forest products industry compete more effectively with imports.”
Traditional urea formaldehyde adhesives have been commonly used for making various wood composite panels, but the toxic formaldehyde the panels release has raised concerns about cancer, indoor air quality and other health issues.
The new adhesive is one of the first of its type that can cost-effectively replace tradional urea-formaldehyde adhesives. It was originally developed by Li after he watched mussels clinging tenaciously to rocks while being pounded by large waves on the Oregon coast.
Fundamental research on the chemistry of the mussels' byssus - small threads that attach them to rocks and other surfaces – revealed a protein with a very unusual chemical composition that allowed the mussels to stick tightly to surfaces despite being inundated in water. Later studies discovered that a similar protein could be created by modifying cheap, abundant and environmentally benign soy protein.
With collaboration and support from Columbia Forest Products and Hercules Incorporated, which has a pending merger with Ashland Inc., further work was done to bring the basic discoveries to commercial use. “These companies had the vision and willingness to invest in this technology, and now it appears to be really paying off for them,” Li said.
The adhesive is being developed for use in hardwood plywood, particleboard, medium density fiberboard, and other wood composite panels, and further uses are anticipated.
“There’s just a snowballing interest in more green, sustainable products,” said Steve Pung, vice president of technology for Columbia Forest Products. “There are estimates that the green building industry can double between now and 2012, become a $70 billion market. I see a time when these environmentally friendly products will dominate the wood composite industry, become the standard and not the exception.”
There had always been plywood adhesives that were formaldehyde-free, Pung said, but the new soy-based technology is the first to also be cost competitive. When California recently passed more strict regulations on formaldehyde emissions, which are to be phased in by 2010, the need for more products such as this took on an added urgency.
According to Pung, “nearly every major player in the wood composite panel industry in North America has expressed an interest” in the new technology, along with inquiries from Asia, Europe, South America and the Pacific Rim. A recent survey of homebuilders found that 40 percent of them believe “green building” concepts help to sell homes, even in the current difficult market conditions.
The new adhesive, officials say, also allow North American manufacturers – many of which are based in Oregon - to satisfy the demand for sustainable products in ways that are not possible with less expensive imports. Pung said that the development of this product and others that are anticipated, in collaboration with OSU and other universities, are “the foundation for our company’s future.”