'Fingerprint' of wood helps fight illegal trade

Researchers from the Utrecht University in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands have developed a method to "fingerprint" where wood was taken and verify the claims of wood origin. 

According to Laura Boeschoten, assistant professor at Utrecht University and lead author of the paper on the topic, to effectively reduce illegal timber trade, law enforcers need forensic methods to independently verify claims of wood origin.

“The most important motivation [to undertake the research] was to further improve small-scale tracing,” said data scientist Boeschoten, “but in the end, mostly to reduce illegal timber trade.” Current methods of timber tracing do not consistently narrow a sample’s origin to areas smaller than 100 kilometers, the distance that would be needed to accurately identify wood illegally logged.

"Multi-element analysis of traded plant material has the potential to be used to trace the origin of commodities, but for the timber, it has not been tested at relevant large scales," according to the paper, A new method for the timber tracing toolbox: applying multi-element analysis to determine wood origin. "Here, we put this method to the test, by evaluating its tracing accuracy for three economically important tropical timbers: Azobé and Tali in Central Africa (22 sites) and Red Meranti on Borneo (9 sites)."

Wood samples from 991 trees were measured using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry and element concentrations were analyzed to chemically group similar sites (clustering) and assess the accuracy of tracing samples to their origin (Random Forest models).  They noted GPS coordinates of the trees, which were located within forest concessions—government-designated forest areas in which logging is administered by a private entity.

The researchers found distinct spatial differences in chemical composition for all three timbers. In Central Africa, tracing accuracy was 86%–98% for regional clusters of chemically similar sites, with accuracy depending on the tracing question. These clusters were 50–800 km apart and tracing accuracy was highest when combining the two timbers. Tracing accuracy of Red Meranti on Borneo was 88% at the site level.

This high accuracy at a small scale may be related to the short distances at which differences in soil type occur on Borneo. A blind sample analysis of 46 African timber samples correctly identified the origin of 70%–72% of the samples but failed to exclude 70% of the samples obtained from different species or outside the study area.

"Overall, these results illustrate a high potential for multi-element analysis to be developed into a timber tracing tool that can identify the origin of multiple species and can do so at a within-country scale. To reach this potential, reference databases need to cover wider geographic areas and represent more timbers."

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Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).