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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?

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    $\begingroup$ It would help if you could remove the non needed text. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Nov 19 '19 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ Any bits in particular you'd highlight as 'non needed text'? It'd be most helpful if you could. $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Nov 19 '19 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ Even if the entire thing is interesting it is too long which will discourage answers. Perhaps put a short (3 line) version of your question right at the beginning with a break before the large blocks. $\endgroup$ – Dast Nov 19 '19 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ super wood you say... sounds hard. super cool concept, I would like to hear more about it. can you please post this on r/worldbuilding on reddit. $\endgroup$ – meaninglessname Nov 19 '19 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Two areas of development that may be influenced spring to mind. (1) Glass: large strong translucent panels and all that entails for architectural design. (2) Metal detection: things made of treated wood would not be picked up by early detection techniques allowing a more sinister side of world history to change. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Nov 19 '19 at 23:00
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The most obvious alternative history difference with these two types of lignin-reduced woods would be: It would replace fiberglass. Especially the "nanowood" as insulation, and as a resin-filled shock resistant building material.

Since wood can not be poured, extruded, moulded, drawn, blown, welded, or cast, it would have a disadvantage to materials that can be, when these construction techniques are called for. However, wood can be cut, joined, drilled, routed, nailed, screwed, bolted, and, in the case of densified wood with its higher strength and heat resistance, even riveted. It would have a clear advantage in these circumstances.

It would also allow for larger wooden ships. Trans-oceanic travel would be more reliable. Perhaps the Titanic would have been built from densified wood, and built a decade earlier. The fire in its boiler room might have raised more concern, though. Not as much concern as a ship built from non-densified wood would have raised; densified wood is more fire resistant than modern treated woods, but it's still hydrocarbon based, so it will eventually burn. (Titanic's boiler room was on fire from about a week before its maiden voyage to the day before its collision with the iceberg.)

Aluminum might not be the big building material that it is now, but it has properties that aren't found in wood: Electrical conduction. Yes, it's terrible compared to copper, but aluminum is highly resistant to the elements. In high voltage, long distance cables, aluminum works good enough and is low maintenance enough to be more cost effective than anything else. Aluminum will be put to work in aerospace industries, as well; especially when the material can't be porous at all, such as the skin of a space capsule.

Densified wood also wouldn't replace aluminum cans for carrying drinks or many corrosive materials. However, it might be used to contain materials that react to aluminum, such as mercury (though I suspect that plastic or less porous hydrocarbons would be a better choice).

Once people figure out how to produce aluminum in bulk, it will be just as cheap as it is today. It might take a little longer for the technology to reach that level, due to lower demand, but the space race and electrical grids will have solved the most major technological hurdles for refining aluminum cheaply.

The main competing building material to wood is concrete; the mixture of aggregate (loose stones) with water and cement (often powdered lime). Concrete has been around for over 2,000 years, and is partially responsible for the wealth of the Roman Empire.

Concrete has a compressive strength that surpasses even low-lignum densified wood... however, concrete has a poor tensile strength. With a ready source of densified wood just before the steel boom, reinforced concrete could be made with densified wood dowels rather than steel rebar. Rebar is easier to bend in the field than wood is, and so could be turned into a supporting mesh for very high strength construction like skyscrapers and bridge pylons. However, in construction that does not need specially shaped rebar, densified wood could be a cheap alternative to steel.

Concrete does have one major advantage over wood products (and every building material): The raw materials are everywhere that there are humans. Humans love to build population centers around rivers, and riverbeds (whether current or historical) are great places for cement deposits. Wood is a bit harder to get everywhere, as many people live in desert, tundra, and grassland biomes. Artificial forests can be planted near cities, much as farmland tends to ring cities, but the further any building material has to be transported, the more expensive it is to build with that material.

Low lignum wood probably wouldn't affect plastic production much, as wood can't be moulded, cast, or extruded. Nanowood could be used with plastic for various lightweight applications, though. It would be especially superior to styrofoam in this respect, as nanowood is heat resistant, so could have plastic moulded or extruded directly onto it, unlike styrofoam.

One final effect, and this is far more speculative than the rest of this answer:

Forests would have switched from an exploitable commodity to a precious commodity much sooner.

There would still be logger barons making deals with corruptible politicians, but public sentiment would have turned sooner. The result would be a quicker turnaround on reforestation efforts, and sustainable forestry initiatives.

If the rest of the world develops much the same, then the extended use of low lignum woods could have a (small) offset on global climate change: Increased usage of new wood would lead to more logging. In a tree's full lifecycle, it is a net carbon sink only for its quick growth period, during the first 10 to 20 years, depending on species. After this, a tree is carbon neutral until its death, when decomposition or a forest fire releases its carbon back to the environment as CO2.

By harvesting a tree when it reaches maturity, the carbon is sequestered from the environment and, in low lignum wood, this carbon is much less likely to be released in the form of CO2, as it would likely find its way to a landfill, offsetting the carbon released by burning fossil fuels.

Admittedly, this is a small offset, probably in the factor of single-digit percentage points.

As far as patents are concerned... It's only since the advent of modern global free trade, where significant numbers of goods can be produced in other nations and find their way into the daily lives of the majority of your nation's population, that governments were able to enforce patents beyond their borders. The single largest possible patent enforcement before global free trade could have been: The British Empire might have granted a monopoly to the East India Trading Company, so Commonwealth nations might have a harder time trading these products beyond their borders, but they would be largely free to exploit the technology once they have learned of it.

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The most obvious difference between OTL and the "woodpunk" world would be the importance of forestry and the handling of forests. In the 19th and early 20th century, forestry was more akin to strip mining, with enormous lots clearcut and then left to regrow on their own, often with little or no attention paid to the process by the loggers. This was somewhat mediated in forests that were actually owned by forestry companies (they had incentives to reforest), but government land or land being leased would be stripped of forest cover and then left.

This would have some obvious problems with erosion and related problems with watersheds, wildlife, farming and so on, but so long as the "timber barons" could buy and sell legislators, they would not really be very interested in solving these problems.

The other obvious issue would be that all the easily accessible forests would be rapidly cleared, leading to such possible contrafactuals as companies making overtures to the Russian Empire to clearcut Siberian timber on a scale vastly larger than happened in OTL, with a concurrent increase in both population and infrastructure to support these logging efforts.

This might also have some interesting side effects further downstream. When Elizabethan England reached "peak wood" in the late 1500's, the resulting shortages in good quality timber for ship building, charcoal production (charcoal was the preferred fuel for smelting metals) and other construction impelled a search for substitutes. Coal mining rapidly expanded through the 1600's to replace charcoal, and England sponsored expeditions to settle the New World partially to exploit the forests for shipbuilding timber. A similar process might take place as forests are stripped away and people begin to realize that it will take between 50-100 years to regrow the forests.

Aluminum production would likely have been stalled for decades as inexpensive wood products filled that niche, so the widespread introduction of Aluminum might not begin until the 1920's or 30's. Until then, Aluminum might still be as expensive as gold (an Aluminum pyramid topped the Washington Monument to symbolize its value, and aluminum utensils were sometimes found in the sideboards of very wealthy people to demonstrate their wealth). Aluminum aircraft, lightweight aluminum stampings or engine blocks would therefore be pushed back several decades as well. Other mining industries might suffer the same effects. The use of wood for other puropses like paper and furniture might also be affected by the high demand for structural super wood.

Finally there would be a surge in interest and support for the forestry sciences, so in places where industry owned the forests, or places where governments derived much of their revenues from timber, advanced forestry techniques, hybridization of tree stocks and other innovations would be supported. This would gradually spread, as land owners and other governments sought to remediate areas that had been clear cut.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for trying to answer the question- regarding the issues with forestation though, one of the main reasons I was thinking of focusing on Japan was that the fastest growing hardwood tree in the world, Paulownia tomentosa (aka 'kiri')- uniquely capable of C4 Carbon Fixation in the same manner as grasses, enabling it to grow up to 6m in its first year, and as much as 10cm/week- holds great significance in Japanese culture- traditionally planted at the birth of a girl, maturing when she does, before being cut down when she's eligible for marriage and carved into wooden articles for her dowry. $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Nov 19 '19 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ So I was just thinking that, given the cultural importance of the tree that's already dubbed 'the aluminum of timber', which would also be the most commercially viable and the least ecologically damaging? Along with the relative precedence of wood in Japanese construction to begin with, and the relative lack of high-quality iron and other metal deposits? The imagery was too good to ignore. $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Nov 19 '19 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ Also worth mentioning- the increased structural strength of superwood (and the thermal insulation properties of nanowood) comes from the catalytic conversion of natural anisotropic cellulose fibers, aligned in parallel, into anisotropic nano-cellulose fibers through hydrogen bonding. This means that it only really works if the wood's naturally anisotropic to begin with; softwoods only get enhanced into the strength and toughness range of untreated hardwoods, so you'd suspect that it wouldn't be worth the effort, not with other purposes they'd be better utilized for (eg, paper & furniture). $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Nov 19 '19 at 20:33
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No Major Differences Would Occur

Here's the important thing - both nanowood and superwood are not inherently better than other materials for building things. They don't posses any qualities that aren't present in other materials, they just happen to be cheaper to make. And then we have the fact that deforesting is a problem we're currently facing (and making decent headway on in some places) and that was without the ability to basically turn trees to iron.

And then there's your stipulation - it was discovered by a Satsuma student and taken back to Japan. If that did happen, it should be noted that it's unlikely anyone else would know it - even the Meiji era government, which was fairly tolerant of foreigners comparatively, wasn't that willing to share secrets, especially something with that power. And it wouldn't even cause a war either, seeing as this just a way to produce basically iron by other means. (And insulation is useful, but there are other ways to produce insulation.)

It'd probably be held a secret until WWII, at which point the Japanese might use it to help construct weapons (the iconic Zero fighter would now be wooden, for instance), but again, it's no better than aluminum, and it wouldn't win them the war, not against the Allies' atomic bomb. The information would be traded, and then you'd have an economic war in the 1950s between the lumber industry and the metal industry as the lumber industry tried to expand. Judging by modern prices, iron rebar is about twice as expensive as the equivalent length of a 2x4, but that price isn't wood treated with sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphate and then heat treated, so superwood would honestly just be too expensive to work with.

Now, cost-effective aluminum didn't exist until 1889, but since Japan would hoard this information, I don't see how it would affect any developing technologies not in Japan. And, if this existed far earlier, when iron was hard to produce, it might have more consequences. But as it is, this really wouldn't change that much.

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  • $\begingroup$ Deforestation wouldn't be a problem... The reason that cattle have a large population in the US isn't due to humans not eating them... Indeed, if humans didn't eat cattle, there would be FAR less. The reason why trees are being deforested is because the land is worth more without the trees, i.e., as farmland. -- It is a poor farmer (or logger) who doesn't re-plant their crops. $\endgroup$ – Ghedipunk Nov 19 '19 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ How is "as light as aluminum but twice as strong as steel" supposedly both "no better than aluminum" and "basically turning trees to iron"? And given the long, exhaustive list of properties I went to all that time to list, HOW exactly can you try to argue that "they don't posses any qualities that aren't present in other materials, they just happen to be cheaper to make"? Did you even read any of the details at all? And how exactly would Japan 'hoard this information', any more than fellow Satsuma 15 student Godai Tomoatsu did, hmm? Let alone "until WW2"? $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Nov 19 '19 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ For starters, the link is broken, so I can't read the sheet. And it's not 'twice as strong as steel'. It's not even as strong as steel - carbon steel has a tensile strength of 841 MPa. And, when considering how good a material is, it's the use which directs it - being slightly better than aluminum is useless if it's twice the cost. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Nov 19 '19 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ Second point - you said that it would be 'patented and exploited to its full potential' by the Satsuma Fifteen student. And industry formulas for super-alloys exist, and are protected currently. There are some incredibly strong rare-metal alloys that aren't available to the general public. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Nov 19 '19 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ The process required to produce it's simple, cheap, and was developed back in the Napoleonic era. So we're not talking "twice the cost"- more like 1/100th>1000th the cost of aluminum. Hardly 'useless'- today, it's being touted as a far cheaper, but similarly light and strong, organically grown renewable version of carbon fiber, which can be sculpted and molded in the same way. With the added bonuses of being far harder, tougher and less brittle, with far better transverse strength properties, and a higher burning point than the epoxy resin used to bond modern carbon fiber composites together. $\endgroup$ – Aquar1animal Nov 19 '19 at 20:49

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