An incredibly versatile natural material, cork is harvested from living cork oak trees somewhat like wool is gathered from sheep.
The raw material for cork products is harvested from the cork oak tree (either the evergreen Quercus suber or the deciduous- Quercus occidentalis). The trees typically reach a height of 40-60 ft (12-18 m) and a trunk circumference of 6-10 ft (2-3 m). Virtually all of the world's commercial cork trees grow in the western Mediterranean region and the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal's cork forests are the most productive. Accounting for 30% of the existing trees, they produce half of the world's harvested cork.
A cork tree is ready for its first harvest when it is about 20 years old. The first harvest is of poor quality, and can only be used to make agglomerated cork products. Subsequent harvests occur at nine-year intervals, when the cork layer reaches a thickness of 1-2 in (2-5 cm). The harvest from a young tree yields about 35 lb (16 kg) of cork, while the yield for an older tree may be 500 lb (225 kg). Each tree has a productive life of about 150.
Cork is composed of dead cells that accumulate on the outer surface of the cork oak tree. Because of its honeycomb-like structure, cork consists largely of empty space; its density (weight per unit volume) is one-fourth that of water. Unlike a honeycomb, however, cork consists of irregularly shaped and spaced cells having an average of 14 sides. With 625 million of these empty cells per cubic inch (40 million per cubic centimeter), cork is like many layers of microscopic Bubble Wrap, making it an effective cushioning material. Its low density makes cork useful in products like life preservers and buoys. The large amount of dead-air space makes cork an effective insulation material for both temperature and noise. Furthermore, it is fire retardant; flames will only char the surface, and no toxic fumes are generated. Cutting the surface of cork turns many of the microscopic cells into tiny suction cups, creating an effective non-slip surface. In addition to being flexible, cork is highly resilient. After being crushed under a pressure of 14,000 lbs/in 2 (96,000 kPa), cork will regain 90% of its original size in 24 hours. Cork absorbs neither dust nor moisture, and it resists both rot and insects. Highly resistant to wear, it is used for polishing diamonds.
Among the many products made from cork are cork floor tiles (e.g., linoleum), shoe insoles, roofing panels, gaskets, safety helmet liners, bottle stoppers, dartboards, bulletin boards, and cores for golf balls and baseballs. Numerous artificial materials have been developed to substitute for cork in specific applications (e.g., a synthetic pea in a referee's whistle, foam insoles for shoes, or Styrofoam life preservers).
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