So, here's the premise- in this alternate 'woodpunk' historical timeline, primarily focused upon Japan, someone stumbles across this development far earlier on, in the mid to late 19th century (as opposed to only doing so in the last few years, as they did in real life)- first, through the discovery of 'nano-wood' (or whatever it's known as in this timeline- see below for further details), with further experimentation resulting in the consequent discovery of the other derivative 'super-wood' materials before the start of the 20th century. How massive an impact do you feel that the discovery and patenting of these industrial process, and the production of these 'super wood' variants, with all of their remarkable properties, would have had upon the world? How radically different might the technological and historical development of this 'Woodpunk' Alternate Timeline be, compared to our own? And with this discovery either made by, or patented and exploited to its full potential by, one of the Satsuma Fifteen students (besides the only member of the group to achieve lasting success and fame in our timeline, Godai Tomoatsu), who got scholarships at UCL courtesy of Thomas Glover facilitating their trip in 1865, how much could you envision this changing the course of world history?
Last year, scientists at the University of Maryland reported the development of a simple and effective industrial process, purportedly capable of directly transforming bulk natural wood into a high-performance structural material, with a more than tenfold increase in strength, toughness and ballistic resistance, and with greater dimensional stability; as strong as steel, but six times lighter (comparable in weight and density to aluminium). First, natural wood is boiled in an aqueous mixture of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphite ('white liquor', the same mixture as that used to convert wood chippings into wood pulp for paper in the Kraft process, and its precursor process, developed and used in England during the Napoleonic Wars), before being heat-compressed; resulting in the total collapse of cell walls, and the complete densification of the natural wood, with highly aligned cellulose nanofibres. This relatively simple, low-tech and inexpensive two-stage process has been shown to work on practically all varieties of wood; and the finished material, which the scientists dubbed "super wood", isn't just strong, tough, and light, but is also impressively dense, resistant to compression, hard and scratch-resistant, as well as even being inherently flame-resistant, and protected against moisture. And it can also be bent and molded at the beginning stage of the process, into whichever shapes may be required.
Regarding the limitations, the most comprehensive report on the material's capabilities and limitations can be found here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322991664_Processing_bulk_natural_wood_into_a_high-performance_structural_material. They reported a maximum tensile strength of 587 MPa (placing it in the same bracket as materials like stainless steel, CrMo steel, aluminium alloy and brass in this regard, and presenting a massive increase from the 46.7 MPa strength of the natural untreated balsa wood samples), and a linear-elastic fracture toughness (KIscc) of up to 41 MN/m3/2 (higher than those of aluminium and aluminium alloy, and around 82% that of 4340 Alloy Steel). It's also got an impact toughness of roughly 11.4 J/cm2 and ballistic energy absorption of roughly 6kJ/m. The scratch hardness and hardness modulus of the densified wood are respectively 30 times and 13 times higher than those of natural wood.
In its weight, density and impact resistance, the 'superwood' is comparable to the toughest grades of polycarbonates, which is the material of choice for bullet-proof glass and shields IRL. But it's also roughly ten times stronger, harder and tougher, and more fifty times as scratch resistant, as well as having a substantially greater resistance to temperature fluctuations- especially at extreme low temperatures, but with a far higher combustion/melting point as well. With far less warping and deformation caused by impacts, and of course, far cheaper (since it literally grows on trees and all). Along and perpendicular to the grain, the flexural strength of the densified wood's about 6 times and 18 times higher than that of natural wood respectively; and while the compressive strength of the densified wood's about 5.5 times higher than that of natural wood along the growth direction, this increases to become 33–52 times higher than that of natural wood perpendicular to the growth direction (translating into a relatively consistent compressive strength of roughly 300-350MPa regardless of orientation, roughly twice that of mild steel).
We do know that the treatment process begins by removing the lignin from the wood, before the wood is compressed at boiling point (roughly 100 degrees Celsius), compressing its cellulose into closely aligned anisotropic nano-cellulose fibers, and reducing its thickness by as much as five times in doing so. The key in the entire process, the paper explains, limiting said material, is the concentration of lignin; “too little or too much removal [of lignin] lowers the strength, compared to a maximum value achieved at intermediate or partial lignin removal. This reveals the subtle balance between hydrogen bonding and the adhesion imparted by such polyphenolic compound. Moreover, of outstanding interest, is the fact that that wood densification leads to both increased strength and toughness, two properties that usually offset each other,” At the end of the process, the compression of the fibers catalyses extremely strong hydrogen bonding, which is what gives the super-wood its super strength.
And there were also a couple of variations of the same process, which yielded similarly lucrative end-products. For instance, by increasing the length of time they soaked the wood in the aqueous mixture of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphite, thereby removing all of the lignin and most of the hemicellulose, and by cutting out the thermal compression stage, reducing the industrial process to a single stage, they created another material which they dubbed 'nanowood'. Lignin is an excellent conductor of heat, and without it, the 'nanowood' became a super-insulator, providing slightly better thermal insulation than Styrofoam. With an anisotropic structure and the nano-cellulose fibers bundled together in parallel, just like the 'super-wood', heat can travel up and down the fibers with ease, but can't easily cross them, particularly because of the air gaps left after all the woody filler (lignin and hemicellulose) was removed. It also turns pure white, allowing it to reflect incoming light rather than absorb it (which also helps to block heat).
On top of that, the 'nanowood' was also far lighter than the untreated wood, and while markedly weaker, only retaining roughly 25-30% of its strength, it could still withstand pressures of up to 13 MPa- making it into the compressive strength range of regular concrete, 50 times higher than insulators like cellulose foam, and more than 30 times higher than the strongest current commercially-used thermal insulation materials, making it one of the strongest super-insulating materials known. Yet another derivative material was created by immersing the nanowood in acrylic or epoxy, allowing it to soak in and fill the empty channels; resulting in a material that was almost completely transparent, whilst still retaining most of its super-insulative properties, as well as being 5-6 times stronger than the unimpregnated nanowood (1.4-1.7 times stronger than the original untreated hardwood), and completely shatterproof.
So, any thoughts?