With $10M in grants, UMaine begins forest biorefining research

Ethanol, plastics from wood will create new forest bioproducts industry

The University of Maine has been awarded a $6.9 million research infrastructure improvement grant from the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR).

UMaine is investing a 50 percent match ($3.45 million) for this project, bringing the total investment to $10.35 million.

With the grant, for years 2006-2009, UMaine will conduct forest bioproduct research and development in fields including engineering, chemistry, biology, forest ecology and economics. This university-based science will enable Maine's private sector to build an integrated forest biorefinery -- one that allows mills to create new, high-margin revenue streams while maintaining their traditional production. This could be the first integrated forest biorefinery in the country.

Maine is the only state to receive an NSF EPSCoR award for forest biorefining. The major federal investment follows President Bush's repeated calls for finding alternatives to oil, specifically using wood chips. Eventually, UMaine's research and the resulting private-sector development could be a model for other parts of the country in which the forest industry makes up a large sector of the economy.

UMaine's method of biorefining entails extracting chemicals from wood chips or shavings before the wood is further processed into pulp or oriented strand board (OSB), preserving the quality of the wood for further processing. The chemicals extracted could be sold as new feedstocks or used on-site to manufacture materials such as fuel ethanol, plastics and specialty chemicals such as coatings -- virtually everything currently made with oil.

UMaine's laboratory research will help make this process viable on a commercial scale, and it will help determine what kinds of products could be made from the material and how to make them. It will also explore new products never before considered from wood, including nanotechnology components.

The grant will enable UMaine to work with faculty and students from the University of Southern Maine and other public and private universities and colleges in the state to combine research efforts and to provide educational opportunities throughout the state. In all, the research of more than 25 faculty positions at UMaine and at other schools will be supported by this grant.

UMaine will also partner with leaders from the private sector, including land owners, pulp and paper, building materials and chemical industries. Other regional, national and international partners will also participate.

"By taking this 'holistic' approach, Maine has the opportunity to build on our current knowledge and history in forest-based industries. We have momentum to build a vibrant, globally competitive, brand new industry that's more efficient, high-valued and also environmentally cleaner," says Hemant Pendse, managing director of the NSF EPSCoR grant and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UMaine.

A key aspect of this research is understanding how to sustain forest lands. "Healthier forests will have higher value; higher-valued forests will receive closer, better ecological attention," says Stephen Shaler, scientific director of the EPSCoR grant and a professor of Wood Sciences Technology at UMaine.

By incorporating specialists in forest-specific research, as well as researchers in resource economics and policy, and by working with land owners, UMaine can help find ways to make forests healthier. This, in turn, will help Maine, Northeast and U.S. foresters compete in the marketplace with cheaper wood supplied by other countries.

"The work we do with the NSF EPSCoR grant will establish Maine as the most advanced and knowledgeable place in the world for forest bioproduct work. It will also teach us how to be better stewards of our forests, and it will lessen our dependence on petroleum," Shaler says.

"This is truly a significant day for the University of Maine, for the state of Maine, and for the people of Maine," says UMaine president Robert Kennedy.

"UMaine has a responsibility to be the harbinger of scientific discovery and, in many ways, the bellwether of economic prosperity. This project enables UMaine to ensure our role in the state's economy with the creation of new jobs, with the ability to perform research and develop ideas that create and enhance industry and with unique, highly relevant educational opportunities."

Using the infrastructure created by the grant, "discussions are underway to determine the feasibility of establishing a Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI) at UMaine, which would involve basic and applied research and industry interests," says UMaine vice president for research Michael Eckardt.

The FBRI would be a permanent program that will advance this research long after the grant expires.

The grant will create immediate openings for about 45 people, including three new faculty members to be recruited to UMaine. Post-doctoral positions will also be created, as will jobs for graduate and undergraduate students, administrative and technical staff. UMaine will also purchase the most advanced equipment necessary to conduct the research quickly and efficiently.

"The University of Maine is the economic catalyst for the state," Maine Gov. John Baldacci said. "With this federal grant and the University match, Maine will again propel forward in the critical research and development that will enable us to better compete in the 21st Century Economy."

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Contacts: Hemant Pendse, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, managing director of UMaine's NSF EPSCoR forest bioproducts project, (207) 581-2290

Steve Shaler, professor of Wood Science Technology, associate director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center, UMaine's NSF EPSCoR forest bioproducts project, (207) 581-2886


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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