Yongsoon Shin and colleagues at the Department of Energy lab have converted wood to mineral, achieving in days what it takes nature millions of years to do in such places as the Gingko Petrified Forest, an hour up the Columbia River. There, trees likely felled in a cataclysmic eruption and, buried without oxygen beneath lava, leached out their woody compounds and sponged up the soil's minerals over the eons.
Shin's petrified wood journey began in a less dramatic fashion, a few minutes away at Lowe's, Shin's group reports in the current issue of the journal Advanced Materials, in the do-it-yourselfer chain's lumberyard,. There they picked up their raw material: pine and poplar boards. Back at PNNL, they gave a 1 centimeter cube of wood a two-day acid bath, soaked it in a silica solution for two more (for best results, repeat this step up to three times), air-dried it, popped it into an argon-filled furnace gradually cranked up to 1,400 degrees centigrade to cook for two hours, then let cool in argon to room temperature.
Presto. Instant petrified wood, the silica taking up permanent residence with the carbon left in the cellulose to form a new silicon carbide, or SiC, ceramic. The material "replicates exactly the wood architecture," according to Shin.
Although SiC chips are unlikely to replace computer chips, materials scientists are interested in the novel properties of ceramics built on templates of wood and, in Shin's lab, other natural materials such as pollen and rice hulls. The intricate network of microchannels and pores in plant matter provide enormous surfaces--in wood, 1 gram of material flattened out would cover a football field--that may prove useful in industrial chemical separations or filtering pollutants from gaseous effluents.