Posted: August 22, 2017

Entomologist Dr. Kelli Hoover and Wood Products Professor Dr. John Janowiak invented a fast and new pest-killing treatment for wood to prevent destruction from pests like emerald ash borer.

Their invention, which quickly kills pests in wood, won a $75,000 Research Applications for Innovation (RAIN) grant from the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Anyone who has lost an ash tree to the emerald ash borer (EAB) can appreciate the problem Drs. Hoover and Janowiak have been tackling for more than a decade.

EAB has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in 29 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The small, metallic green insect is native to Asia and believed to have entered the United States in wood packaging materials. Its larvae feed below the tree's bark, disrupting its supply of water and nutrients and killing it within a few years.

The solid wood packaging materials industry uses conventional kiln heating and methyl bromide treatments. But under the United Nations, the international community is phasing out methyl bromide. The industry must comply with international treatment standards approved by the International Plant Protection Convention of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Radio frequency heating is approved under the treatment standard.

Drs. Hoover and Janowiak initially tested microwave treatments but soon realized they did not heat deeply enough into the wood.

They began testing radio frequency waves -- another form of dielectric heating -- that can penetrate several meters into the wood, and therefore could treat many different wood species and sizes in big batches.

Conventional heating is energy-intensive and requires 30 minutes at 56 degrees C at the core of the wood to kill insects and nematodes.

Janowiak and Hoover's research showed the same effect within 1 minute.

Penn State is pursuing U.S. and international patent rights on the unique aspects of the treatment, which makes the process energy-efficient and faster than conventional heating.

"For me, when the bell went off in my head that this was really going to work was when we were able to kill Asian longhorned beetle, which is a very large beetle that came here from China," said Dr. Hoover.

"It killed the beetle at a lower temperature than you even have to reach with a conventional oven, so that was pretty exciting. Then we tried pinewood nematode, which is a really big problem in pine. We showed that this technology works really well to kill pinewood nematode."

Drs. Hoover and Janowiak plan to use RAIN funding to test a new treatment chamber built to their design specifications on a variety of wood species. RAIN money will also fund an economic analysis and marketing.

Their goal is to partner with an equipment manufacturer who will license the technology. They would consult on developing specifications for various wood applications and species.