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Seeing the wood for the trees

Europe's forests are a vital resource. Recent raised awareness of this value has led to changes in forestry techniques that now mean that for each tree felled, two are planted. But how can foresters ensure that the quality of the timber they produce is good enough for the particular use envisaged? A team from four universities and three research institutes has joined forces to answer just this question. Using field, laboratory and modelling techniques, workers will take forward integration of understanding that underpins the prediction of the quality of a crop. In the future, the methods they have devised could be used to specify tree genotypes and forestry management techniques that will allow the characteristics of timber to be known from the moment the seed is planted.

Professor Sam Evans of the UK Forestry Commission Research Agency has a very clear idea of what he wants to achieve. "In the first place, we want to develop a predictive model that will allow a coupling between tree growth characteristics and the quality of timber obtained when the tree is felled," he says. "There is a need in industry for such predictive systems, so that foresters and wood technologists can assess the quality of the wood, based on an evaluation of the standing crop. Only in this way can the stringent requirements of clients such as major wood pulp, furniture manufacturers and the construction industry be met. We believe that this project can address this issue."
The project is separated into three parts, a field phase, a laboratory phase and a modelling phase. The team has established some fifteen sampling sites, where non-destructive measurements on tree samples are used to determine indicators of the state of the trees. Workers then fell a limited number of trees, which form a representative sample. A number of chemical, biochemical and mechanical tests are then performed, which give an overall view of the quality of the wood, which can then be related back to the structure of the wood itself.
"We are carrying out studies on the anatomy and biochemistry of the trees," explains Professor Evans. "These results are then used in the modelling phase, where we are adapting an existing model, and adding new model components. This should enable us to predict growth and quality characteristics. The idea is to target a fairly small plot in a forest, and scale up the results to give an overview of the properties of the whole forest, or even region."

Strength in diversity

The project partners are diverse in nature. The UK's Forest Research, an Agency of the Forestry Commission, is responsible for carrying out most of the UK government's research requirements in the area of forestry. Other partners include four universities, from Ghent and Antwerp (Belgium), Viterbo (Italy) and Berlin (Germany). The UK Building Research Establishment Centre for Timber Technology and Construction, and The European Forest Institute, based in Finland complete the line up.
The tasks within the project were divided up so that Forest Research and the Universities of Antwerp , Viterbo and Berlin provide test sites and knowledge of plant physiology and biochemistry. The University of Berlin offers biochemical and anatomical expertise. The University of Ghent and the Building Research Establishment have wood technology expertise. Forest Research and the University of Antwerp have a fund of knowledge in ecophysiological and modelling techniques at the local scale. Finally, the European Forest Institute also provides know how in large-scale modelling techniques.
"Our co-operation has yielded three principal end products," says Professor Evans. "The first is an increase in knowledge, which will be transferred to the scientific and public domains. This will be achieved by publishing results in technical and trade journals, and by creating a web site. Secondly, we are creating a proprietary database of results that will use terminology accessible to everyone interested in the field. Thirdly, there are the modelling systems and results, which will also be made widely available."

Long-term impact

"The real impact, though, will come in the longer term," Professor Evans explains. "The idea is to develop forecasting systems that will ultimately allow us to grow forests as a function of quality requirements. For example, if you want to buy furniture that has a good veneer, in parallel to having the veneer being tested in the laboratory, we aim to link an assessment of the standing crop to the characteristics of the finished product. In future, it should be possible to select species or genotypes at the planting stage in the knowledge that the timber produced will have exactly the right properties for the specific application in which it will be used. The project lays the foundations for the research process that will achieve this long-term goal. We also believe that we will be able to define the correct forestry management practices that will allow the timber to be optimised. In fact, this constitutes further work to be carried out in the medium term. We need to see whether our predictive modelling and management techniques work in practice. As we have to wait for the trees to grow, this will take some time."

Progress

1) Partially completed data collection programme across a large range of data types from the project experimental sites.
2) Development of project database containing data collected from project experimental sites.
3) Development and partial validation of a stand scale model simulating the growth of key parameters determining
timber quality.
4) Development of a 3D model reconstructing log shape from scanning data integrated with a module optimising log processing and cutting cycles.
5) Two carbon and energy bookkeeping models have been developed that quantify the fossil fuel energy inputs and associated CO² emissions of individual forest operations and timber conversion procedures.

Results

The following key results have been completed:
1) Standardised methodology for site characteristics, physiological, eco-physiological and mensurational data for observed forest stands.
2) Standardised methodology for timber quality assessment for forest stands, applicable across the EU.
3) Standardised methodologies for determining selected anatomical and biochemical wood properties, and wood physico-mechanical properties.
4) Protocol for integration of sub-modules.
5) A review of forestry working practices, wood processing methods and implicit fossil energy inputs in Finland and the UK.
6) Timber growth and quality assessments on forest stands located across the EU.
7) New mechanistic stand-scale timber growth and quality model.
8) New model for analysing 3D log scans and simulating optimised cutting cycles.
9) Integration of sub-modules and with a project database.
10) Two computer-based models of fossil energy and carbon-based balances available as source code, or executable user-friendly interface.

Project Co-ordinator: Professor Sam Evans
E-mail
Telephone:
Address: Forestry Commission Research Agency
Farnham
United Kingdom
Website: http://www.efi.fi/projects/mefyque/
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