I can’t tell if anyone has thought of this yet. I spent some time with both Google and Google Scholar and found nothing substantive. I would rather hope some serious scientists have already thought of it, because it seems a truly interesting idea: let’s not grow trees just to cut them down; instead, let’s just grow the wood.
This is the design concept: part of the problem of wood is that using it damages the environment. The whole wood processing industry is based on the notion that wood comes from trees. Trees are useful for so many other things besides just wood. So maybe we need to look for other ways to make wood.
I mean, why don’t we see if we can grow wood in a lab, without needing the tree. Imagine a factory where 2-by-4 studs emerge from a nutrient bath, and are cut off to the right length as needed. Imagine planks of wood for flooring, and huge wooden structural members grown in a vat. Wood is a great product: strong, thermally resistant, easy to shape, and usually quite pleasing aesthetically. Why not try to make wood without having to grow trees?
It’s good that we plant trees to replace the ones we’re cutting down. But growing trees requires lots of energy, effort, and money, and the bark, and branches, and leaves, and roots don’t really get used much. Then there’s the pain of having to cut them down and transport them from a forest to a mill for processing. More energy, more pollution, more waste.
Well, why don’t we do away with all that. Plant trees and just let them grow. They can help sequester carbon from the atmosphere and maintain ecosystems. They can help nature come back from the rather sorry state it’s in these days. The wood we need for buildings, furniture, tongue depressors, and toothpicks would be grown in factories. Indeed, if we can learn to grow wood in a factory, we can probably learn to grow paper too, and save ourselves the pollution caused by the pulp and paper industry. While there’s undoubtedly a sizable capital expense, I imagine there would be significant savings – much less transportation, and much less waste.
It would take a fair amount of genetic engineering to make this happen, but it’s not like we’ll eat the wood, or let the wood out into the wild and risk tinkering genetically with existent forests. I think there would be far fewer concerns about vat-grown wood than about vat-grown trees.
In time, we might even figure out how to grow special genetically engineered woods that are far stronger and useful as a building material than any naturally occurring wood.
I could make a similar argument about meat. Why not grow steak instead of cows? Try Googling “vat-grown meat” to see what’s up with that. But that would probably cause much more of a fuss. Let’s stick to wood for now.