“Everybody would like to use tropical wood. It looks fantastic, it acts fantastic. It’s a beautiful material,” says Christian Jebsen, Chief Executive of Kebony. “The problem is it’s just not sustainable. Most people understand that. What we can do is take softwood and give it the same properties of the hardwood we would like to use.”

Norwegian wood company Kebony, one of the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Technology Pioneers, transforms sustainable softwood by impregnating it with furfuryl alcohol, which is a natural waste product of some crops. When the wood is heated a chemical reaction permanently changes its cells to leave a wood that has the properties of hardwood.

“It even looks like tropical wood. It’s got the same brown beautiful colour,” says Jebsen.

Jebsen believes the time is right for kebonization, as the process is called, because there is a growing awareness that usage of tropical hardwood, which is popular in construction, flooring, boat building and furniture making, must be reduced. Historically, much of the wood used has not come from sustainable sources and demand for tropical hardwood is a significant factor in deforestation in many parts of the world.

In March 2013, new EU legislation requires importers of tropical wood to prove that the wood comes from sustainable sources; New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ruled several years ago that the city would stop using tropical hardwoods.

Jebsen says consumers are increasingly aware of the problem of illegally logged timber, and developers – who were once unconcerned about the provenance of the wood they used – now take an active interest and even ask about the CO2 emissions in Kebony’s process.

As it happens, Jebsen says Kebony’s technology modifies wood in a more environmentally friendly way than many current methods, some of which impregnate the wood with arsenic and copper, which can later leak out. Kebony’s process, in contrast, is non-toxic and biologically inert. The process was developed in the late 1990s, but Jebsen says it took a big step forward in the mid-2000s.

Kebony is expanding quickly and trying to turn the product into a brand that will be licensed around the world. The wood industry is basically commoditized, Jebsen says, but Kebony hopes to set itself apart. He adds: “The building industry in general and maybe the wood industry in particular are very bad at developing brands and doing the commercial side of it.”

The next stage will be to explore the suitability of other species of tree for the kebonization process. “Wood is a living product so there will always be potential to improve,” says Jebsen.

“One of the challenges we will have going forward is to explore the suitability of new species. “Today we’re doing different pine species, but there are loads of different wood species that we need to see whether it’s treatable with Kebony. Not all of them will be, but the more we find the more potential we will have.”

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Author: Shane Richmond is an author and technology specialist.

Image: Pine trees are seen in Rome REUTERS/Chris Helgren