Portrait of Tom De Mil


As a lecturer specialized in wood science at Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, Tom De Mil brings a knowledge that he has accumulated during more than 10 years and that he shares today through his courses in wood science, his research in dendrochronology (wood dating discipline) and his advice to the Walloon Region.

After his master in Forest and nature management at the University of Ghent, Tom De Mil started a PhD in 2012 at the same faculty in collaboration with the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. As a bioengineer, he focuses on the field of dendrochronology. During this period he worked on a method that would help to date tropical trees and investigated the role of wood in the carbon balance.

By comparing the growth rings of several trees, it is possible to discover many things about their life, their environment and the climate of the years they lived: larger rings may indicate a wetter year and conversely, rings closer together would be explained by a period of drought. In this way, we can guess the climate of a period of antiquity, determine the authenticity of a Stradivarius or know the reaction of tree species to climate change.

"Tree rings are like the bar code of the tree" Prof. Tom De Mil

But this exercise is much harder when it comes to tropical trees that are less marked by the seasons during their life and therefore have less distinct rings. Tom De Mil's team therefore uses x-rays to scan tree cores in 3 dimensions, which allows them to base their analysis on other elements of the wood, such as its vessels or parenchyma. Despite the accuracy this method provides, images of multiple trees from the same region do not have identical structure. He found an explanation in 2014 in the Luki Biosphere Reserve (Mayombe region of Congo). There, he took up a study from 1948 in which scientists from Ghent marked trees by nailing plates to their trunks. By finding these trees and comparing their samples, he discovered that some trees had hardly grown at all in 70 years and had hardly formed any wood.

After completing his PhD in 2017 and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren in 2018, he is doing a second post-doctoral fellowship in the United States in 2019 in Tucson at the University of Arizona which is renowned in the world of dendrochronology. This gives him the opportunity to apply his scanning method on South African wood species which are very rare. He will repeat this experiment in 2020 on one of the oldest species in the world, Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), which makes it possible to study the different periods of cold and dryness experienced by these trees, which was not possible because of their particular shape.



The Bristlecone is the oldest known living tree on Earth

"Even if it was 1500 years ago, you can compare the scans of a dead tree with the scans of the surrounding trees to estimate the precise date when it stopped living" Tom De Mil.

Since 2021, Tom De Mil has joined Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech as a lecturer in wood science, forestry, forest product mobilization and wood industry. In addition to teaching these subjects, he also hopes to teach his students to always be critical, to be wary of simple messages and to take a global view of things by varying sources and taking a step back.

In addition to his courses, he is also a researcher in the Management of Forest Resources and Natural Environments axis in which he studies the growth of wood to the final product (material for structures, recycled products, etc.). In particular, he contributed this expertise for the structure of the open-air auditorium of the rain garden of the WASABI platform of Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech.

Finally, he fulfills a coordinating role within the Strategic Innovation Initiative (SII) VALBOWAL, which brings together various actors of the wood sector around three research and development axes: Resilient and Diversified Forest, Wood Transformations (including wood waste), and Circular Construction Products (including wood waste) and a transversal axis aiming at the training and digitization of the sector.

For Prof. De Mil, the next big challenge that the wood sector will have to face will be climate change, which will have a great impact on the production and supply of wood.

"If we want to have a bioeconomy that replaces concrete and steel [...] We need to have more forests, that they are better managed and diversified to have trees that are more resilient to climate change. We also need to learn how to better reuse wood" Prof. Tom De Mil


Tom De Mil

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