Wood can easily be made transparent to create energy-efficient windows.

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Standard glass windows like these may one day be replaced with wooden ones.

Mendwong Photography/Getty Images

Further improvements to transparent wood have brought us one step closer to windows that are far more insulating than traditional glass windows.

The standard process for making wood clear typically involves soaking it in a vat of sodium chlorite (a compound used in some bleaches and toothpaste) to remove lignin, the structural component of wood, but this method requires large amounts of chemicals, produces liquid waste that is difficult to recycle, and can weaken the wood.

Lianbin He and his colleagues at the University of Maryland have devised a way to modify lignin rather than remove it entirely, which is quicker, uses less material, and improves the strength of the wood than standard lignin removal processes.

The researchers’ technique stems from their recent discovery that lignin can be made transparent by removing only the parts of the molecule that give it color. The researchers applied hydrogen peroxide, a common disinfectant, to the wood’s surface and placed it under an ultraviolet lamp that mimics natural light. They then soaked the wood in ethanol to remove any remaining stains, and filled the wood’s pores with a transparent epoxy, part of a process that creates lignin-free, transparent wood.

The final product is a wood that transmits more than 90 percent of light and is more than 50 times stronger than transparent wood, which has had the lignin completely removed. “Transparent wood is lighter and stronger than glass. It can be used for load-bearing windows and roofs,” says Hu. “It could also potentially be used to build see-through houses.”

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