Effects of Moisture on Diffusion in Unmodified Wood Cell Walls: A Phenomenological Polymer Science Approach

Joseph Jakes, Christopher Hunt, Samuel Zelinka, Peter Ciesielski, Nayomi Plaza

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53 Scopus Citations


Despite the importance of cell wall diffusion to nearly all aspects of wood utilization, diffusion mechanisms and the detailed effects of moisture remain poorly understood. In this perspective, we introduce and employ approaches established in polymer science to develop a phenomenological framework for understanding the effects of moisture on diffusion in unmodified wood cell walls. The premise for applying this polymer-science-based approach to wood is that wood polymers (cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin) behave like typical solid polymers. Therefore, the movement of chemicals through wood cell walls is a diffusion process through a solid polymer, which is in contrast to previous assertions that transport of some chemicals occurs via aqueous pathways in the cell wall layers. Diffusion in polymers depends on the interrelations between free volume in the polymer matrix, molecular motions of the polymer, diffusant dimensions, and solubility of the diffusant in the polymer matrix. Because diffusion strongly depends on whether a polymer is in a rigid glassy state or soft rubbery state, it is important to understand glass transitions in the amorphous wood polymers. Through a review and analysis of available literature, we conclude that in wood both lignin and the amorphous polysaccharides very likely have glass transitions. After developing and presenting this polymer-science-based perspective of diffusion through unmodified wood cell walls, suggested directions for future research are discussed. A key consideration is that a large difference between diffusion through wood polymers and typical polymers is the high swelling pressures that can develop in unmodified wood cell walls. This pressure likely arises from the hierarchical structure of wood and should be taken into consideration in the development of predictive models for diffusion in unmodified wood cell walls.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number1084
Number of pages48
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by the authors.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-75376


  • Cellulose
  • Diffusion
  • Glass transition
  • Hemicelluloses
  • Lignin
  • Plasticization
  • Polymer
  • Swelling pressure
  • Water
  • Wood


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