Car parts, yogurt, paint: Scientists are using wood in novel ways, hopefully staying the axe on forestry education before it’s too late

More and more people read articles such as this one on a screen, curbing the demand for newsprint. Our broom handles are made of plastic; our houses are brick, concrete and drywall. We just don’t need trees the way we used to, which has researchers and the industry scrambling to find new applications.

One particularly novel idea is to build cars out of wood. On the surface, it sounds ridiculous. After all, wood is highly combustible and car engines quickly run hot. Still, that hasn’t stopped the University of Toronto from trying to make it happen.

Inside the university’s “high-performance bio-carbon composites pilot facility,” is a machine that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book, but it can make car parts from wood. Mohini Sain, U of T’s dean of forestry, insists the parts are perfectly safe even though the aroma inside the facility smells a lot like a wood stove crackling to life in a ski chalet on a winter morning.

A few weeks ago, Ford Motor Company of Canada Ltd. summoned Sain to Windsor, Ont. There, in the presence of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ford announced a $500-million research and development program in Canada that includes “lightweighting” — that is, car parts made with wood.

But this recognition of forestry’s importance may have come too late for some.

A report last year by researchers from McGill University, University of California, Berkeley, and Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences detailed the slow suffocation of U of T’s forestry faculty, a fate that the researchers call misguided, given that forests alone hold the key to reversing global warming, since trees drink carbon dioxide and thus cool our planet.

“The attention paid to sustainable forest management has never been higher, and in the emerging bio-economy the demand for forest products and services is expected to grow,” the researchers wrote. “In a country that owns 10 per cent of the world’s forest, and 27 per cent of the world’s boreal forest, the importance of this resource can hardly be overestimated.”

Despite declines in demand for paper and other wood products, the forest sector remains important, contributing $20 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2013 and the country is the world’s biggest exporter of forest products.

Even so, the U of T sees less use for study of forestry. Last month Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s provost (in charge of academic programs), alerted forestry faculty to a “potential academic restructuring” — in other words, the possible abolition of the program.

Leaders in Canada’s forest industry are concerned. They fear that the move may signal that Canada, a forest industry superpower, is retreating from its history of innovation in the sector and ceding leadership to Europe and Asia.

The U of T is unmoved: President Meric Gertler recently turned down a meeting with the forestry faculty’s advisory committee, angering a prominent industry figure.

“Your response to our request to meet…

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