The process, and others like it, could make the humble material an eco-friendly alternative to using plastics and metals in the manufacture of cars and buildings, Nature reported this week. From the report: "It's a new class of materials with great potential," says Li Teng, a mechanics specialist at the University of Maryland in College Park and a co-author of the study published on 7 February in Nature. Attempts to strengthen wood go back decades. Some efforts have focused on synthesizing new materials by extracting the nanofibres in cellulose -- the hard natural polymer in the tubular cells that funnel water through plant tissue. Li's team took a different approach: the researchers focused on modifying the porous structure of natural wood. First, they boiled different wood types, including oak, in a solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfite for seven hours. That treatment left the starchy cellulose mostly intact, but created more hollow space in the wood structure by removing some of the surrounding compounds. These included lignin, a polymer that binds the cellulose. Then the team pressed the block -- like a panini sandwich -- at 100C (212F) for a day. The result: a wooden plank one-fifth the thickness, but three times the density of natural wood -- and 11.5 times stronger. Previous attempts to densify wood have improved the strength by a factor of about three to four.