June 1, 2005 Chemists combined an exotic form of an amino acid -- used by mussels to stick to rocks -- with soy flour to make a new, high-strength adhesive. The new glue helps in manufacturing natural-looking plywood without cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde.
CORVALLIS, Ore.--Many people look for natural or green products for their homes. But even something as natural-looking as wood furniture or cabinets can contain cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde. Now, a scientist has created a non-toxic wood adhesive. And his inspiration didn't come from the forest. It came from the Oregon coast.
Pounding waves are no match for the mighty mussel, that produces strong, flexible threads that cling to rocks. This small shellfish inspired a big idea for wood chemist Kaichang Li.
"This thing is really amazing," Li, of Oregon State University in Corvallis, tells DBIS. He noticed mussels secrete a unique amino acid called dihydroxyphenylalanine. He found a way to add that amino acid to soy flour -- a product that's rich in protein, plentiful and non-toxic.
"Now the soy protein becomes a really good, very strong adhesive," Li says, wood glue so strong that plywood made with it stays stuck even after hours of boiling.
Oregon State University licensed the new glue to a plywood manufacturer who then sells the wood to furniture and cabinet makers.
Rick Fields, President of Neil Kelly Cabinets in Portland, Ore., says: "We're very excited about it. It's going to add a whole new dimension to our green and healthy approach to cabinet making." He is confident the new glue is safer for customers and says it shouldn't add to the cost of the cabinets.
BACKGROUND: Researchers have developed a new group of adhesives for wood products inspired by the ability of mussels to cling to rocks using thread-like tentacles. These threads are proteins that retain powerful adhesive properties even in water. By adding these amino acids to more common proteins, like soy flour, the scientists have produced new wood adhesives. The researchers are also exploring ways to create new adhesives from tree bark or decayed wood.
ADVANTAGES: The new wood adhesives are natural and environmentally friendly, unlike the formaldehyde-based adhesives currently used to make some wood products, especially plywood, particleboard, and laminated veneers. They are also stronger and more water resistant.
USES: The new glue is being used to make environmentally friendly particle board-the main wood used to make kitchen cabinets and other wood products. They may replace the formaldehyde-based wood adhesives currently used to make some wood composite products such as plywood, particleboard, and laminated veneer lumber products.
WHAT IS BIOMIMICRY? Biomimicry is a field in which scientists, engineers, and even architects study models and concepts found in nature, and try to use them to design new technologies. Here are some well-known examples of biomimicry:
- Velcro was inspired by cockleburs, which cling tenaciously to clothing and animal fur.
- The design for the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe -- the country's largest commercial and shopping complex -- is based on the region's termite mounds.
- Both Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers studied the flight of birds when designing their flying machines.
- Alexander Graham Bell designed his telephone receiver around the principles of the human ear.
- Sonar was inspired by how whales, dolphins and bats emit high-pitched sounds and analyze the returning echoes to help them navigate.
WHERE IT'S BEING SOLD: Columbia Forest Products of Portland, the nation's largest producer of decorative plywood, has exclusive rights to use the glue in plywood.