Federal Way, Wash.

People rely on Pedro Armenta to identify tree species. But take him into a forest, and he'd have trouble sorting out one tree from another.

That's because Armenta looks at trees on a cellular level, employing microscopes and X-ray scanners that reveal wood as a fibered honeycomb. From his perspective, the researcher can see things his Weyerhaeuser Co. colleagues wouldn't know, such as which trees are most likely to grow robustly, and how to make glues hold laminates tighter.

"I couldn't care less what the wood looks like outside," Armenta says. "I'm interested in what's inside."

VISIONARIES: A Weyerhaeuser researcher (top) uses an electron microscope to get an extra-close view of wood. At such levels, it's easy to see (middle) how a tree's rings are compressed, late-season versions of what a tree produces earlier in the year. (Bottom) The microscopic view reveals big variations in how deeply the glue sandwiched between layers of plywood binds with the wood tissue. Photos: Weyerhaeuser Co. Weyerhaeuser wants to look inside for a simple reason: "When you're growing trees, you're placing a 30-year bet," says Brian Greber, the company's vice president for marketing and technology. By analyzing samples of rings taken from still-growing trees, Weyerhaeuser can know which ones are likely to be stiffer than is normal for the species, or have qualities that suit it well for a particular climate, and thus be optimal candidates to become, say, wain-free 2x4s in Louisiana.

"It's all about differentiation," says James Funck, Weyerhaeuser's manager of lumber and wood science research and development. And he doesn't just mean that scientifically. The research figures into Weyerhaeuser's Framing Series, which bills itself as being better than the typical solid-sawn lumber. This brand is priced at 15% to 50% over traditional studs, but it can maintain that difference only if Weyerhaeuser can grow enough of the right trees.

Elsewhere, researchers hope to produce bigger results by working on a smaller scale. They're engaged in nanotechnology, creating stuff designed to operate at the molecular level, often no bigger than 1/80,000th the width of a human hair.

Nanotechnology already has led to innovations in other industries, such as stain-repellant pants, bacteria-killing medical dressings, scratch-resistant bumpers, and longer-lasting tennis balls. The possibilities for wood aren't clear yet, in part because more research is needed as to how trees molecules work. But the benefits are expected to be just as wondrous.

John Pace of Leetsdale, Pa., whose Wolfpac Technologies makes the Versatex brand of PVC trimboard, sees a day coming when nanotechnology will enable siding to help cut home heating bills by changing color, going dark to absorb solar heat in the winter and turning light as spring arrives. Likewise, a nanotechnology coating that's affected by electricity might let a homeowner change the color of the house with the flip of a switch.

What about trim? "With nanotechnology, trim may be able [to be configured] to stand up to fire," Pace says. "Maybe it could even let off moisture and help put out the fire."

Huck DeVenzio, a marketing manager at Arch Wood Protection, doesn't use the "nano" word, but he does believe that in 20 years there may be "smart" particles that look out for moisture or fungi or termites. In such cases, they might emit additives that disguise wood, so fungi and termites don't recognize it as food, he says.

Lawyers and manufacturers also might like how nanotechnology could make it possible to mark materials in a way that couldn't be spotted by the naked eye. That way, if there's litigation over performance, you could use the secret mark to source the product.

Such innovations, combined with the growing importance of engineered wood, could lead to the end of something that lumber people have been doing ever since lumberyards were invented: judging a board by the tree it came from. Most veteran LBM people can tell you how one species of framing lumber differs from another. Most sales are made in terms of species: spruce, Douglas fir, Eastern white pine, etc.

But the continuing developments in engineered wood are reaching the point where "we're making species differences irrelevant," says Thomas McLain, head of Oregon State University's Department of Wood Science and Engineering.

Folks like Weyerhaeuser's Greber foresee the day when people will pick wood based on its strength, flexibility, nailability, and related qualities.

"Over the next 20 years, you'll get people talking about 'What do I need to do to get the job done?' " he says. "They'll get out of this species specificity."

That may be true for framing lumber. But given another key trend in the future of wood, the species of tree could become vital for a whole different reason: how well it burns.

–Craig Webb