Fred Kamke focuses on designing composite products that make more efficient use of timber resources.
Composite wood products have had a bad reputation over the years, being considered a low-cost means of using commercial waste or low-quality wood.
That image is changing, and Fred Kamke is helping make sure it continues to change.
“The old paradigm of growing trees for lumber or pulp is no longer the only option,” Kamke says. “Short-rotation woody crops, intensively grown on a relatively small land area, may be used to produce structural products with properties equal to or better than the highest-grade Douglas-fir lumber.”
Kamke, a leader in research on innovative new wood composite products and technology, is currently working on wood modifications that can be used in composites.
Oregon has about 20,000 acres of hybrid poplar that were planted for pulp uses. As a low-density wood the poplar isn’t useful for much else. “I want to be able to densify it to make useful products,” Kamke says. Using a home-made wood press, he is able to take a quarter-inch-thick piece of the poplar, apply steam, heat and pressure, and turn it into a hard wood about one-fourth as thick.
The process is called viscoelastic thermal compression (VTC) and the resulting wood has higher density, strength and stability than the original. Kamke believes it can be used as a composite with a piece of the original poplar sandwiched between two of the VTC pieces.
“I can see uses for it in building construction, and I think there could be applications for flooring materials because it has good hardness properties,” he says.
Hybrid poplar is a good choice because it grows fast, produces many trees in a small area, and is harvestable within five or 10 years.
Kamke has worked with composites his entire career, spending more than 20 years at Virginia Tech after receiving his doctorate from OSU in 1983.
He returned to OSU in 2005 to become the first holder of the JELD-WEN Chair in Wood-Based Science in OSU’s College of Forestry. Now he is in the process of helping make the university a world center in bio-based composite materials.
“I’ve always liked the idea of being able to get more out of the forest, of getting the products we need without relying on huge land masses for the resources,” he says.