Long before any animals were roaming across the earth, trees were here helping to make our planet the green, inhabitable place it is today.
Why do trees play such a vital role on the earth? Trees are tall plants with wooden trunks, a canopy of leaves or needles, and roots. Tree leaves contain an important chemical called chlorophyll, which uses the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into all the different chemical compounds trees need to grow and reproduce.
Trees and plants can make their own food. Trees also produce the oxygen gas that all animals need to breathe. This important process is known as photosynthesis. Below the trunk, the root system brings in nutrients and water found in the soil. This complex process allows trees to protect the planet with their own built-in biochemistry. But how?
Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to lower greenhouse gas levels and slow climate change. The roots also anchor the soil and help prevent erosion during extreme weather events. The roots can also remove environmental toxins through a process called phytoremediation. Older trees even help decrease the risk of forest fires by limiting the amount of light that shines through the canopy, which prevents flammable smaller plants from growing at all. The tree trunk is made of wood and is also very valuable. Wood is used as a common building material and as a fuel for heating and cooking. Trees are part of an important relationship for protecting our planet.
How do chemists play a role in the relationship between trees and the earth? Almost every organic compound, from medicines to plastic bags, can be made from the molecules found in trees. But today most chemicals are made from fossil fuels that are found underground. Trees were once the main source of chemical compounds before the discovery of crude oil!
One of the oldest chemical processes that uses wood is papermaking. This process can involve harsh chemicals, and there was a time when the papermaking industry created a lot of pollution. Recently, chemists have been able to develop cleaner ways to make paper by using hot water, high pressure, and other chemicals that are recycled for reuse.
Chemists are also developing technologies to replace gasoline with new fuels made from wood. Someday soon you might be able to say you have a tree-powered car! There are even industries developing new plastic materials from wood products that are composted or recycled without polluting the planet.
Neal Abrams, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Chemistry, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.