A technology that uses dielectric heating and radio frequency energy to destroy destructive pests lurking within wood products is closer to reaching the marketplace after a recent commercial trial at Penn State’s University Park campus.
The Dec. 17 demonstration, which was observed by regulatory and wood products industry professionals from the U.S. and Canada, validated the effectiveness and cost efficiency of the radio frequency, or RF, technology for pallet sanitation.
The treatment offers enhanced ability to terminate wood insect and nematode pests compared to conventional heat practices, noted Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
“This innovation has the potential to be transformative in required international trade wood-sanitation treatment,” said Gagnon, who has been instrumental in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program since its inception, encouraging entrepreneurship across the college.
“RF treatment is more efficient and uses fewer resources than conventional kilns and chemical drying methods, and that is not only better for a company’s bottom line, but it is also better for the environment.”
Developed by Penn State scientists John Janowiak, professor of wood products engineering, processing and manufacturing, and Kelli Hoover, professor of entomology, the patent-pending, wood-treatment system heats wood in a unique configuration by using electromagnetic wave penetration, similar to that of a microwave oven.
It heats wood from the inside out, first causing the core temperature to elevate rapidly, making it an ideal method to destroy pests that have burrowed within, noted Hoover.
“Invasive pests cause about $120 billion a year in damage to our valuable forests, ecosystems and agricultural crops, and they continue to be a problem due to increased world trade,” she said, pointing to the emerald ash borer and Asian long horned beetle as examples. Both pests found their way to the U.S. in untreated pallets shipped from China in the early 2000s; the emerald ash borer alone has destroyed tens of millions of ash trees in 30 states.
Ensuring that wood used in international trade is pest-free is not just an ethical business practice, but it is a legal requirement, according to Janowiak. Wood packaging materials, including pallets, crates and chips, must be debarked, treated and inspected per international regulations. Adhering to these standards is especially crucial for the U.S. wood industry as 40 percent of its logs are processed into wooden shipping pallets.
For years, wood-products manufacturers have had two options to deal with wood-boring insects — traditional heat-treatment or fumigation. RF technology is poised to offer the industry another choice, one that the scientists say is faster and more streamlined than the use of conventional kilns and that can help decrease energy costs. In addition, the cost to treat wood using RF technology potentially is lower than current pallet heat-treatment practices, set at 5 cents for a standard 48-by-40-inch shipping pallet.
“Our technology has a huge economic potential that can provide long-term savings for companies,” said Karolina Szymona, a postdoctoral researcher on the project. “While saving money is important, to me the real value is that it saves energy, which means saving our natural resources and reducing the carbon footprint.”
RF technology also can replace the process of fumigating wood with methyl bromide — a chemical that is being phased out — and help the U.S. wood products industry to retain export markets while moving away from chemically-treated wood.
“There has been a real demand to develop suitable alternatives to replace methyl bromide, which is an ozone-depleting chemical,” said Ron Mack, commodity treatment specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Dielectric treatment is one of the leading alternatives to replace it.”
While the technology has undergone numerous tests and has received a stamp of approval from industry boards as well as the International Plant Protection Convention of the UN — the board that oversees wood packaging trade standards — the research team needs third-party validation and assistance with developing operational protocols to make its innovation “mill ready.”
Mark Hamelin, RF Kiln Technology, center, adjusts the power input for a dielectric heating cycle. He is shown with John Janowiak, professor of wood products engineering, processing and manufacturing, and Karolina Szymona, postdoctoral researcher.
To that end, the scientists are working on a bilateral agreement with the U.S. and Canadian lumber standard accreditation committees, both of which had representatives on-site for the trial in Penn State’s Forest Resources Laboratory.
“This is a safe, stable and proven technology,” said Chuck Dentelbeck, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Lumber Standards Accreditation Board. “But introducing any new technology is like being in a marathon; you have to bring them [pallet manufacturers] to the starting line and let them decide if it makes sense for them. Once they know the benefits, I believe many will run with it.”
Sharing his enthusiasm is project collaborator Mark Hamelin of RF Kiln Technology, of Midland, Ontario, Canada, who deemed the commercial trial a success. “This was a pretty big day, having these agencies witness how efficiently and effectively our process works,” he said. “There are challenges ahead, the biggest one will be convincing people in the industry who have been using a different technology for 50 years that we have a better mousetrap.”
The project has received state and federal appropriations, including continuous funding since 2003 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Methyl Bromide Transitions Program. It also received financial support from the college’s Research Applications for INnovation program, which provides funding for researchers who are ready to move toward commercializing their research.
More information about RF technology and project collaborators is available online at https://abe.psu.edu/research/bio-based-products/wood-packaging/about-research. Further, the USDA and industry partner Mark Hamelin of RF Kiln Technology are part of a formal Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Penn State to advance RF technology.