Synthetic structural materials with exceptional mechanical performance suffer from either large weight and adverse environmental impact (for example, steels and alloys) or complex manufacturing processes and thus high cost (for example, polymer-based and biomimetic composites)1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Natural wood is a low-cost and abundant material and has been used for millennia as a structural material for building and furniture construction9. However, the mechanical performance of natural wood (its strength and toughness) is unsatisfactory for many advanced engineering structures and applications. Pre-treatment with steam, heat, ammonia or cold rolling10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21 followed by densification has led to the enhanced mechanical performance of natural wood. However, the existing methods result in incomplete densification and lack dimensional stability, particularly in response to humid environments14, and wood treated in these ways can expand and weaken. Here we report a simple and effective strategy to transform bulk natural wood directly into a high-performance structural material with a more than tenfold increase in strength, toughness and ballistic resistance and with greater dimensional stability. Our two-step process involves the partial removal of lignin and hemicellulose from the natural wood via a boiling process in an aqueous mixture of NaOH and Na2SO3 followed by hot-pressing, leading to the total collapse of cell walls and the complete densification of the natural wood with highly aligned cellulose nanofibres. This strategy is shown to be universally effective for various species of wood. Our processed wood has a specific strength higher than that of most structural metals and alloys, making it a low-cost, high-performance, lightweight alternative.
We thank R. Briber for suggestions and R. J. Bonenberger for help with mechanical tests. We acknowledge the support of the Maryland NanoCenter and its AIMLab. J.S. acknowledges financial support from the China Scholarship Council.
Extended data figures
Top: natural wood; Middle: monolayer densified wood; Bottom: laminated densified wood.