Looking back on the second Summer School of NRP 66

Young researchers from all walks of forestry and wood research came together in Zäziwil, Emmental, in early September 2014 to sound out the strengths and opportunities of Switzerland in view of an intelligent future use of wood and to discuss current challenges.

With over 70 doctoral students and postdoctoral staff from 25 countries, NRP 66 brings together a large number of young researchers working on wood in Switzerland. The resource is of interest to the young academics not only because it was used to build impressive farmhouses like those in the Emmental: today the appeal of wood lies more in the large variety of uses to which it can be put. The event focused on the potential of wood for the production of chemical substances, designer furniture, accessories, bicycle wheels or modern multi-storey buildings, and on how economic and ecological aspects can be reconciled in new products and procedures.

Doing one thing without neglecting the other

The demands placed on scientific research are high. Creativity, technological excellence and sound business sense are required to help wood make its mark as a material. In addition, new solutions are needed to keep wood within the material cycle for as long as possible and generate added value through its entire lifecycle, while minimising impacts on the environment at the same time. Web-based tools are already on the market to support such ecological considerations, e.g. the KBOB recommendation "Ökobilanzdaten im Baubereich" [LCA Data in Construction] 2009/1:2014 with an Excel list of building materials and an electronic building component catalogue. These tools have allowed owners of buildings, project managers and planners to compare different building options by mouse-click, says Rolf Frischknecht, CEO of the partner platform responsible for maintaining the database.

Living and sharing

How innovative building technologies can be combined in densely populated urban areas through "smart sharing" has been shown by Hanspeter Bürgi, managing partner of Bürgi Schärer AG, who also teaches architecture at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. He and his students won fifth place at the Solar Decathlon Europe 2014 in Versailles with the prototype of a solar house (largely made of wood) in which energy and spatial needs can be significantly reduced through smart usage and sharing.

New materials from nanocellulose?

Alain Dufresne, member of the Steering Committee of NRP 66 and professor at the Grenoble Institute of Technology INP-Pagora, began his presentation with an insightful short film illustrating the partially undreamt-of potential of nanocellulose for the production of new materials and products. Dufresne then presented the latest production processes, provided an overview of different cellulose nanomaterials and their producers and spoke in favour of standardising the specialist terminology. The subsequent discussion made it clear that industry can only turn the promise of nanocellulose into a success story if it takes seriously the public's concern about potential health hazards. In order to increase the market share of modern wood-based materials, researchers and their industry partners will also need to further improve the properties of wood and develop processes for cost-efficient mass production of high-tech materials.

L'industrie suisse du gaz et le bois, ressource énergétique renouvelable

The Swiss gas industry and wood, a renewable energy resource "Wood is a nightmare!" exclaimed Martin Seifert, Secretary of the Fund for Research, Development and Promotion of the Swiss Gas Industry (FOGA), in a deliberate provocation of his audience that was designed to demonstrate the potential of SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) production in Switzerland, and to highlight some of the technological hurdles that still need to be overcome. The technique for methane production has made significant progress in the last 10 years, but still has to prove its stability and efficiency. The maintenance costs of these plants are still unknown, and there is a lack of answers to questions about the supply and storage of the wood, the quality of raw material required, gas purification and emissions. Taking account of the many restrictions on the siting of gasification installations, there is actually potential for 10 to 15 bio SNG installations in Switzerland. While there is certainly interest in developing alternatives to gas production, Seifert does not believe that wood will have a major role to play in the country's energy strategy. The contours of the Swiss biorefinery landscape have yet to be drawn, and a balance has yet to be found between the recovery of energy and chemicals from timber on the basis of technological developments and scientific findings. Switzerland should not necessarily focus on the construction of a number of biorefineries to exploit energy recovery from Swiss timber, but should rather reflect on how to position itself as a developer and exporter of technologies. Ultimately, consumers will certainly carry more weight than the framework conditions established by the government. Nevertheless, the prospects are promising.

What does wood as a resource mean to young researchers?

The doctoral students and postdocs played an active part in shaping the event through presentations and workshops. They intensely debated how Switzerland might position itself in the wood value-added chain and what challenges this entails. An outing to nearby Trubschachen to see the green energy initiative "Oil of Emmental" as well as a production plant of "Truber Holz" was a source of fresh inspiration for the participants. The plant produces high-quality, ecological houses made chiefly of wood from the surrounding forests without the use of glue, plastic, metal or other extraneous materials. Parallel courses on the storytelling method and on writing scientific texts in English rounded off the three-day event.