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Use of X-rays to advance wood-decay knowledge leads to honor for Forest Products Lab biologist

Madison, Wis. — A biologist at the USDA Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison has been honored for her innovative use of physics technology that has led to advances in understanding the molecular and chemical processes involved in fungal wood decay, opening the way to the development of new, environmentally preferable methods for protecting wood, the Forest Products Laboratory has reported.

The discoveries are considered important because nearly 10 percent of the 300 million tons of trees harvested annually in the United States are used to replace wood products damaged by decay.

Research plant pathologist Barbara L. Illman, who works at the Forest Products Lab in Madison, received the 2005 Chief's Honor Award for Distinguished Science for her work on wood decay and for other work.

The award was presented in a recent Washington ceremony by Dale Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service, who cited Illman for her research in "applying solid-state physics techniques to forestry problems, invasive species mitigation research, bioremediation research, and contributions to long-term ecological research programs."

The author of more than 65 research papers, articles and technology transfer publications, she is considered an authority on the application of applying nanotechnology-scale physics equipment and facilities to biological, chemical, environmental and microbial sciences.
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Illman developed techniques for employing high-intensity X-rays to examine the mechanisms of wood decay and of subsequent recycling of woody biomass.

In her research, Illman exposed samples of wood and fungi to X-rays at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The resulting discoveries about the biochemical mechanisms of brown-rot fungi, considered the most destructive wood-decay organism, could lead to improved methods for protecting wood, according to the Forest Service

In addition, Illman's research team at the Forest Products Laboratory discovered fungal strains that are able to degrade widely used wood preservatives containing toxic metals and organic compounds such as those in chromated copper arsenate (CCA) or pentachlorophenol (penta), thereby permitting wood that has been treated with preservatives to be recycled or disposed of safely.

The team has been awarded six patents for using fungi for the bioremediation and recycling of treated wood. Using X-ray analytic techniques, Illman learned that the metals remaining after remediation were in their least-toxic chemical form.

Illman's achievements also include measures to control the spread of highly destructive non-native insects, especially in shipping materials. Roughly half of all international trade goods move in wood crates or on wood pallets or spools or involve other wood material, creating a major pathway for the spread of invasive insects.

A native of Kingsport, Tenn., Illman earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Tennessee Technical University and a Ph.D. degree from Pennsylvania State University. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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