Tucked away, amidst the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus, sits the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in all its resplendent glory. This research facility was originally built in 1910, America’s only federally funded wood utilization research laboratory, which still holds true to this day. In 1932, the staff moved into the current building, which seems to majestically loom over the university campus, atop a small rise in the earth. This laboratory is one of the best little known facilities of the United States government. Working under the Forest Service–which operates under the USDA– this facility conducts research on anything wood related, and is a great resource for the general public.
The FPL was a formidable force in its prime. With over 700 employees at its peak, the laboratory today houses 144 researchers and government employees. Although the number of participants has been reduced, the work completed is no less important. In fact, the type of research done today seems almost futuristic, and most likely improbable, to those who roamed the halls in 1932.
The Centennial Research Facility was constructed in 2010, 100 years after the original building was constructed, and is directly across from the current headquarters of the FPL. This state-of- the-art facility conducts cutting-edge research, producing and researching wood products that are pushing the boundaries of building materials and science.
The Center for Wood Anatomy and Research is a mix of a high school science classroom, the storeroom of an archaeology department, and library fused into one. Housed in tall oak filing cabinets, resembling card catalog systems with larger drawers, is over 103,000 wood samples. Within these drawers are some of the rarest samples from around the world. This repository is just one curiosity of the FPL.
Sitting amongst the many samples, which litter the drawer interiors and the tops of these golden oak cabinets, are treasures that, as Doctor Jones would say, “belong in a museum.” This is always the interesting part of research collections, the strange oddities they accrue, which stay hidden away in plain sight. My tour guide hands me a piece of the heaviest wood on the planet, an unassuming piece of wood about the size of a loaf of bread, astoundingly dense for its size. Leadwood, one of the hardest woods known to civilization, weighs a staggering 85 pounds per cubic foot, and feels every ounce of it.
Although this Leadwood sample is interesting and unique, it pales in comparison to the other artifacts which are haphazardly displayed in this collection. Lying under a wooden table, rests a reconstruction of the ladder used in the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. Arthur Koehler FPL scientist and Chief Wood Technologist, was able to connect a wood sample found in Bruno Hauptmann’s apartment, to the ladder used to abscond away with the young Lindbergh baby. Through his testimony and research, Koehler aided in the investigation and capture of this kidnapper and accused murderer, in what was dubbed “The Crime of the Century.”
The Forest Products Laboratory has made many contributions to research, and aided in many investigations. Only a few feet away from the Lindbergh’s ladder, rests a broken bat, a shard of wood, a bulbous end of Maple with a splintered handle. Imagine a bat being swung at a baseball, reaching speeds upwards of 90 miles per hour. The bat makes contact at 70 miles per hour, and then, the wood splinters, cracks, and gets sent sailing high into the crowd.
This was a problem Major League Baseball was having for some time. In 2008, bat breakages reached an all-time high, and because of this, an investigation began. Who better to assess and analyze this dilemna, but the Forest Products Laboratory? David Kretschmann, scientist at FPL, was tasked with finding a culprit, and after hours of watching footage, examining broken bats, the grain and structure, and the anatomy of the wood, he came to a conclusion. Many of the producers of wooden bats had switched to maple, and as a result, the grain in the handle was tipped, instead of a vertical grain with gave strength to the bat’s structure. Today, thanks to the research conducted by Kretschmann and the staff at FPL, the MLB was able lessen the frequency of broken bats.
When Thor Hyerdahl embarked upon his momentous expedition from Callao, Peru, on his boat Kon-Tiki, he probably never thought that part of this raft would end up in a display case in Madison, Wisconsin. Leading the vanguard in experimental archaeology and anthropology, Heyerdahl took his adventurous spirit to the sea, and braved the unknown as previous explorers had done, no guarantee for safety of life. After 101 days and 4,340 miles, all six crew members had survived when they landed on the Raroia atoll in the Tuamotu group. Today, the Kon-Tiki expedition is significant in proving that early populations had the ability to traverse the ocean, migrating populations across the gaping maw of the vast blue sea.
Deep within this wooden curio cabinet, lies another object in this wooden menagerie. Found on Mount Ararat, Noah’s Ark has thought to have been unearthed many times by treasure hunters, archaeologists, and adventurers seeking fame. Here in the Wood Anatomy Library, sits a chunk of one of those many alleged findings, complete with the faded, black and white photo of the skeletal remains of a ship’s hull, partially buried beneath the mud. This piece of the fabled Noah’s Ark, sits on a shelf with indifference, amongst many other artifacts and wood samples.
In the late sixties and early seventies, muscle cars dominated the car market. With cheap gas prices pushing forward the big block engines of Pontiac, Chevy, Ford, and Mopar automakers, these cars were easily found cruising the roads of America. These vehicles were not just muscle cars, but beautiful examples of craftsmanship. The automobiles made in these years are revered by auto collectors, as some of the most unique American muscle cars produced. Here, amongst all the other relics, is a plaque with a piece of African Crossfire Mahogany. Thin strips of this wood were used as veneer in the interior of 1973 Pontiac automobiles, due to the beauty and durability of this wood. This piece, again, illustrates the many contributions the FPL has made to our everyday life.
Now in another building of the FPL, The Centennial Research Facility, many new experiments, scientific research, and work is completed. Here, a unique process is accomplished, utilizing the scientist’s ability to analyze the condition of wood without destroying it. This nondestructive evaluation was used on the sarcophagus of Meretites, a noblewoman of Ancient Egypt. This artifact is 2,500 years old, and is part of a larger collection of funerary objects at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. To evaluate the wood’s condition, the FPL ran diagnostic tests, sending sound waves through the beautifully painted wood, and then measuring their speed, which would alert them to any rotted spots. FPL researchers were then able to advice museum professionals about the best way to preserver this priceless artifact.The sarcophagus was returned after the evaluation was completed, but today a cardboard cutout explains the whole process in the lobby of the Centennial Research Facility.
When the USS Constitution needed evaluation and repair, the U.S. Navy turned to the researchers and scientists of the FPL, to come to the aid of this American treasure. The USS Constitution was commissioned in 1794, completed in 1797, and saw its last foray in 1853, when capturing the slave ship H.N. Gambril. After this capture, the ship was used for training, and then as a traveling exhibit for Americans wishing to experience a piece of naval history. Using the nondestructive evaluation, the researchers at the FPL were able to identify boards that needed to be replaced and also identify the corrosion of fasteners aboard the ship.
While relics and artifacts are interesting and fun to observe, the FPL is conducting lifesaving, important research, which may impact the lives of millions of people throughout the world. One important thing to notice about the Centennial Research Facility, is that the structural members and beams are all made out of engineered wood, the same materials that are tested at their facility. The building itself is a testament and marvel to the progress that has been made in wood products engineering, of which the FPL has played a major role.
In one large, imposing room of the laboratory, is a monolithic structure of steel girders rising high from the clean, smooth, cement floor. Within this steel framework is a wood-laminated truss, pointing high up to the ceiling, awaiting its fated destruction. This important piece of lab equipment will test the seismic strength of these wooden members until they snap, proving the strengths and limits of such building supports, testing their structural load.
In this very room, sits another important, and lifesaving experiment that involves the utilization of wood products. As tornados rip through many areas of the country, basements and storm shelters have been the preferred method of safety from these indiscriminate forces of nature, but those are not always affordable or stormproof. Here in this laboratory, scientists, engineers, and researchers are working on a tornado safety room made out of tongue and groove boards, and a metal door. Eventually, plans will be available to download for free to those in the path of mother nature’s wrath.
With the high winds that are associated with twisters, the researchers must keep a storm shelter standing and able to withstand projectile objects moving at high speeds. Although the work on this project is still ongoing, they are making great strides in creating an affordable shelter, which many can construct on their own. And what kind of tornado research would be complete without a large potato gun, that can launch dimensional lumber upwards of 100 miles per hour, simulating the high winds associated with such brutal forces of nature.
The Centennial Research Facility does not just test the strength of wood in structural applications, but also the durability of products. At the CARWASh–Chamber for Analytic Research on Wall Assemblies Exposed to Simulated Weather–advances in building materials, especially designed towards energy efficiency, are tested against the elements of wind and rain.
The tests performed in this chamber help develop new wall assembly designs, providing information for moisture levels in walls. The large fans, water jets, heaters, and cooling systems in this airtight chamber, can simulate any weather they wish to evaluate. The information gathered provides key data on the exchange of moisture, and how it is affected by differing elements and conditions. Having a national database of all weather, the researchers can recreate conditions throughout the United States, and accurately portray the damaging effects of wind driven rain, which makes this laboratory unique in its capabilities.
The FPL is one of only two labs in the country on the cutting edge of nanocellulose production and technology. Nanocellulose is essentially wood fiber broken down to the nano scale. It can be used to create ballistic glass, woven to create a substance stronger than kevlar, and can create sheets of material that are extremely thin. The braided material of nanocellulose is more durable than fiberglass, and can replace the conventional construction material in many applications. These nanomaterials also have the potential to be used in computer chips, flexible electronics, and in concrete, making it lighter and stronger.
Since the Forest Products Laboratory is federally funded, they cannot generate profit and sell the goods which can be produced. Because of this, companies are sometimes allowed to operate the FPL’s equipment, allowing the lab to take on yet another role as a business incubator, where industry professionals are able to develop products for their business. It is through the collaboration of researchers and individuals with an entrepreneurial nature, that the FPL aids American businesses.
One company, straight from Hollywood, has collaborated with FPL to develop sets for movies and television shows, advancing their product through the use of the composite laboratory available at this institution. Utilizing the research of scientists developing wood composites, television sets can be made out of sustainable yet durable materials. The boards that are produced using this method, have many interesting features, including 50% of the material being made out of cooked cow manure. Due to the design of this product, once the set is no longer need, pouring water on it will dissolve it back into a compostable slurry. The amazing part is, the structure of some composite boards are extremely strong, able to hold twenty cars on a piece at one time.
An unassuming, average looking building, next to the Centennial Research Facility, is a living experiment. The Research Demonstration House is a living lab, an ongoing experiment, where everyday life is simulated to see the outcome of materials exposed to such rigorous tortures. Outside, the walkway ramp is covered with varying different woods and composite boards to test their aging.
Inside, the home is a showcase of different wooden floors. Sensors throughout the home maintain a constant temperature level and adjusts humidity, simulating four people living in the home. This experiment does not just monitor wood in the home, but the insulation, heating system, hot water heater, and much more, testing and analyzing the most energy efficient homes.
Directly behind the Research Demonstration House sits the Carriage House. Inside this small building, further research is conducted on the sustainability of homes and the increased efficiency of such. A BioMax 5, generates electricity from wood products through the process of gasification, and then utilizes the heat from this process for the home or water heater. This waste heat is reutilized, creating an efficient production of resources for the home. The Carriage House is a showroom of energy efficiency for the home, with a rain water catchment, heating system, and generator for electricity.
The Forest Products Research Laboratory has a proud, long standing, heritage of serving America, and giving back to its citizens through the research and products it develops. Of note, Aldo Leopold, most famous as author of A Sand County Almanac, was associate director of this famed institution in 1924, and then had subsequent appointments at the University of Wisconsin Madison Campus. This laboratory has been on the cutting edge of research when it comes to wood technologies, and it is exciting to think what the future holds for innovation and science in this field.
To contact the Forest Products Laboratory and its expert staff of researchers, see the information provided below. Also, if you visit the Madison area of Wisconsin, call to see if they are conducting tours while you’re in town. Make sure to make an appointment in advance so you don’t miss out!
FPL Front Desk – Monday through Friday, 08:00 am – 04:00 pm central time
Phone: (608) 231-9200 Fax: (608) 231-9592
Email Address: email@example.com