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Understanding Molecular Self-Assembly Opens Door For New Sources Of Wood-Like Materials

A better understanding of how the cell wall of wood forms will someday help wood scientists assemble wood-like composites without using trees. Virginia Tech wood science and forest products professor Wolfgang Glasser presented recent discoveries about the way cell-wall of wood self-assembles and present examples of self-organizing cellwall-like polymers, including several cellulose derivatives and lignins, in a paper at the 217th American Chemical Society National Meeting (held March 21-26 in Anaheim).

"Work by former doctoral student Ulrike Becker taught us to recognize when and under what conditions molecules self assemble," Glasser says. "I tell my undergraduates that some molecules behave like cats. They will never organize. While other molecules behave like adult Germans. They spontaneously organize. Using Ulli's work, we've found a way to describe -- perhaps less colorfully -- the way molecules assemble."

The hypothesis is that the cell-wall of wood does not require biochemistry to form, but self-assembles spontaneously because of structural features, Glasser says. "Cellwall-like, multiphase polymeric (supramolecular) architectures may be a result of thermodynamically-driven self-organization," he says.

"This could open the door for producing wood-like materials from other plant-derived molecules -- such as straw -- and save the forests," Glasser says.

"This is just a dream; a vision! But understanding molecular self-assembly is a key stepping stone towards that dream."

Source: Virginia Tech. March 1999.

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