We Could Be Making Many Household Products From Wood, Not Oil

Back to our roots

Logged Forest

Replacing Oil With Wood

Researchers found that using cellulose from wood waste could be a viable alternative to oil-based chemicals, or petrochemicals.Igor Trepeshchenock / Barn Images / Flickr

Oil doesn’t just run our cars, trucks, and buses. Many of our household products, from plastics to medications, are made in part from petroleum products. But as oil is a nonrenewable resource, with scarcity projected in the future, some are looking for alternative methods for synthesis.

A new study from the journal Energy and Environmental Science shows that wood waste could be the answer to some of our oil needs. Researchers in Switzerland and Sweden studied reactions that combined plant products and bacteria to create succinic acid. This acid is currently derived from oil to create a whole slew of products we use daily – it's an ingredient in our vitamins, perfume, food, and more.

Instead, the researchers created succinic acid in multiple methods, from glucose in sugar beets and cellulose in wood. Though the wood-based method requires a step to transfer cellulose to glucose, the scientists found that the methods were comparable in cost, environmental impact, and safety. The differences were negligible.

The researchers then compared different wood-based methods to the oil-based ones we use today and found that wood methods could be cheaper and have less effect on the environment. One method, using one strain of E. coli bacteria, was found to be 20 percent cheaper than oil production. Another method using another strain was found to be 28 percent less impactful on the environment.

To measure the processes’ impacts on the environment, the researchers considered the energy required to manufacture the products, as well as indirect energy usage, like building the infrastructure and managing wastes.

The researchers also note that an alternative system creating chemicals from wood waste would not interfere with the market of a food crop. They point to one waste product from the paper industry, which is not currently reused or recycled, as a possible source for the cellulose needed in the production process.