Plant cell wall’s ‘glue’ may make wooden skyscrapers possible

Building wooden high-rise buildings is one of the trends in sustainable construction. While wood has been used in the construction of buildings for a long time, it is possible to build them higher and higher thanks to new materials such as cross-laminated timber. Now, thanks to the discovery of the ‘glue’ that sticks plant cell walls together, it may be possible to go from wooden high-rise buildings to actual skyscrapers.

Xylan and cellulose are the Earth’s most common polymers. They are found in the walls of natural materials like wood and straw, determining their strength and digestibility. To form these walls, xylan and cellulose have to stick together, but because of their seemingly incompatible nature that seemed unlikely. Xylan is long and twisting, with sugars and molecules attached to it, whereas cellulose is thick and rod-like.

Two researchers, Ray and Paul Dupree from the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge, managed to solve the mystery of how these polymers bind together to form a strong, indigestible wall. They found that that cellulose induces xylan to untwist itself and straighten out, allowing it to attach itself to the cellulose molecule. It then acts as a kind of ‘glue’ that can protect cellulose or bind the molecules together, making very strong structures.

The researchers state that the discovery’s value does not lie only with the breaking down of materials. It can also be useful for the manufacturing of stronger materials like strengthened composite wood. The enhanced wood may open the door to a bright future for sustainability, when applied on a much larger scale like on skyscrapers. The possibility is currently being researched.