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Scientists made a wooden steak knife that's 3 times sharper than a steel blade

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All right. This next story might sound like an infomercial. The latest invention in cutlery isn't space-age technology or triple-tempered copper-coated German stainless steel. It's just wood.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Using a mix of chemicals and pressure, scientists have found a way to make wood 23 times harder than normal, however you measure that. Professor Teng Li of the University of Maryland says his team decided to craft a steak knife out of it.

TENG LI: And we managed to do that. And it turns out that this knife made of the hardened wood is actually sharper than the stainless steel dinner table knife.

SHAPIRO: Almost three times as sharp - and yes, they did slice off a piece of medium-well steak with the wooden knife.

MCCAMMON: But wait; there's more. Teng's group also made nails. That's right. They made wooden nails that they claim work just as well as stainless steel nails. And while steel will eventually rust.

LI: Hardened wood doesn't have this problem (laughter).

SHAPIRO: The study, out today in the journal Matter, suggests hardened wood could be a more sustainable material than steel. But before you conclude wooden knives and nails will save the planet...

MARK MIODOWNIK: People always love these stories where someone takes something like wood, and they immediately think, OK, wood can replace steel - hooray. That must be a win for the environment, surely, because wood is good, you know?

MCCAMMON: Mark Miodownik is a professor of materials and society at University College London. He says if reused, steel is more environmentally friendly than you might think.

MIODOWNIK: The whole point of steel is that you make it - it does cost a lot of energy to make it - but then it lasts a long time. And if you average the CO2 emissions over 100 years, you get a very good answer for the environment. So - and also, constantly cutting down trees is obviously not the direction you want to go in.

SHAPIRO: OK. So maybe you won't see oak cutlery on wedding registries anytime soon. But Miodownik is excited about the potential of this super hard wood down the line.

MIODOWNIK: You know, that's what we do as humans. We make new materials, and often we have no idea what they're good for. And it takes 20 years or so to work out what the killer app is for a material innovation like this.

MCCAMMON: As for professor Teng Li, he's already dreaming up other applications, like hardened wood floors, so make sure you stay tuned after this quick commercial break.

SHAPIRO: Sarah, wrong network.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.