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We can 3D-print wood now

The most trafficked wild product in the world isn’t ivory or rhino horn, but rosewood, an endangered tree verging on extinction as demand for rosewood furniture in China clears out forests in places like Madagascar. But what if an identical material could be 3D printed from wood waste?

Two years ago, pioneers in the 3D printing industry started exploring new materials. “We realized really quickly that wood waste is a material that could be transformed for 3D printing,” says Virginia San Fratello, chair of the design department at San Jose State University and one of the founders of Forust, a startup that is now launching as part of Desktop Metal, a larger 3D printing company. The new process can print wood with a grain that mimics any type of tree, from ash to mahogany.

The technology uses two byproducts from the wood industry. “A tree is made of lignin and cellulose,” says Ric Fulop, CEO of Desktop Metal. “When you make things out of trees, whether it’s furniture or paper, you’re essentially dematerializing the tree…what we’re trying to do is put that back together.” The process spreads thin layers of sawdust, and inkjets a nontoxic binder (including lignin, the part of natural wood that helps hold it together) to recreate the grain of wood layer by layer.

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