ORONO, Maine — Drivers in the Pittsfield area use the Neal Bridge to get from one point to another on Routes 100 and 11.
What drivers may not realize, however, is that the very structure on which they’re driving may be a bridge to something much larger.
The University of Maine-based Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center announced Friday that a group of investors sees big things in the relatively small Neal Bridge, which is the first in the nation to use an innovative technology developed on the Orono campus.
The investors, who include a Bangor native and UMaine graduate, have launched a spinoff company called Advanced Infrastructure Technologies LLC, or AIT, to invest approximately $20 million into continuing development and commercialization of what they have dubbed the center’s groundbreaking “bridge-in-a-backpack” technology.
Officials estimated the new endeavor could create about 100 new jobs and lead to at least six new bridges in Maine over the next several years.
“This is a milestone because of how exciting this technology is,” AEWC director Habib Dagher said earlier this week. “It has the potential to change everything in terms of bridge construction. It can change the way bridges are built in the future.”
The “bridge-in-a-backpack” technology — so called because of its light weight and the portability of its components — uses collapsible carbon-fiber tubes that are inflated, shaped into arches and infused with resin before being moved into place. The tubes are then filled with concrete, producing arches that are harder than steel yet resistant to corrosion.
Finally, the arches — 23 of them in the case of the Neal Bridge — are overlaid with a fiber-reinforced decking and buried under several feet of dirt and sand. The result, according to engineers, is a normal-looking bridge that goes up faster, costs the same or less than a traditional span but should last longer.
Friday’s ceremony was also a day to celebrate the Neal Bridge itself, as Gov. John Baldacci, Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Susan Collins participated in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the AEWC facility on the UMaine campus.
The closest the group got to the actual Neal Bridge on Friday was the arches under which the speakers’ dais was situated. The arches were leftovers from the construction of the bridge, which the wood composite center put together last fall with the Maine Department of Transportation.
“This is all about doing things in a smart way, using Yankee ingenuity, the research that goes on up here at the university, and being able to commercialize that throughout our sectors in the state of Maine,” Baldacci said.
The AEWC also announced that Brunswick-based Harbor Technologies, a spinoff company of the center, will add 20 to 30 jobs in the next few months for further development of its bridge girders made of composite materials.
It’s a different type of technology from the so-called “bridge-in-a-backpack,” but the advantages are similar, according to the AEWC.
The announcements came three days after President Obama signed the federal economic stimulus package into law. The package includes $111 billion for infrastructure and science.
“The timing’s very favorable for us to begin the introduction and commercialization of this methodology,” said Bangor native Brit Svoboda, one of the investors in AIT. “We know between the advancement of technology, [including] the elimination of steel, the ease of assembly, distribution and installation, coupled with an exciting stimulus package with things in there for infrastructure and bridge building, make this the perfect time to roll this company out.”
The wood composite center, which began as a small pilot study in 1991, is now a 48,000-square-foot testing and production facility with more than 140 full- and part-time employees. The AEWC has averaged about $6 million in grant awards in the last few years, with 97 percent of the center’s funding coming from outside Maine.
AIT is expecting to add jobs as the company grows and expands into other areas of bridge technology. AIT will be based at the Target Technology Incubator building on Godfrey Drive in Orono.
The Maine Department of Transportation will likely be the new company’s first major client, but highway officials from other states are already eyeing the composite technology.
Maine transportation officials have put a $6 million “place holder” in the agency’s 2010-11 construction budget for up to six additional composite bridges using the inflatable arches. Additionally, the department is working with Harbor Technologies — itself an AEWC spinoff — on designs for a 500-foot-long bridge in Boothbay using the composite girder technology.
The DOT’s Gary Williams said Friday that the department is still exploring the best sites for the six or so composite bridges in cooperation with AEWC staff. But Williams said he expects that future projects would be larger than the 44-foot Neal Bridge.
“We are willing to go bigger, and the university has certainly assured us that we can go bigger,” Williams said.
He described the composite arched bridge in Pittsfield, which cost $581,000, as “cost-competitive” with a traditional steel and concrete bridge.
Transportation officials in Massachusetts, New Jersey and several other states already have been in contact with the Maine DOT, Dagher’s staff and Harbor Technologies about the composite bridges. Williams described Massachusetts highway officials as “very receptive” to the new technology.
At Friday’s event, Dagher was called everything from the “Energizer Bunny” to the “University of Maine’s own stimulus package.”
“At this critical time in our nation’s history, the American people can see right here at the University of Maine that we are still a nation of vision, of energy and of determination,” said Collins, R-Maine, who has helped secure federal funding for the center.
John Hillman, president of HC Bridge Co. in Wilmette, Ill., said he was blown away by the level of support that officials at all levels of Maine government were offering to AEWC and the state’s composite materials industry.
The leaders of both Harbor Technologies and AIT have deep roots at the University of Maine.
Last year, HC Bridge Co. built a bridge in Lockport, Ill., using the composite girders manufactured by Harbor Technologies, whose president, Martin Grimnes, is a UMaine alumnus. The companies are now working together on other projects, including the Boothbay span, and Hillman said he sees no reason why the emerging technology couldn’t spread across the country.
Grimnes said the composite technology being developed in UMaine labs also has great potential to revolutionize the wind-energy industry, which in turn can help lower the nation’s “carbon footprint.”
“The composite industry we have in the state of Maine — we might not be the biggest in the world, but we are the best in the world,” he said.
AIT’s Svoboda, a commercial real estate developer, is involved in AIT with Mark Rasmus, his partner in their business, R&S Development Co. LLC of Bonita Springs, Fla., along with several other investors.
Svoboda is a 1970 graduate of Bangor High School and a 1976 graduate of the University of Maine with a degree in zoology. He has three grown daughters living in the Bangor area who all attended UMaine. The family also has a home in Belfast.
A former mergers and acquisitions executive at Sysco Corp., Svoboda also is on the board of trustees of the Bangor Theological Seminary.
“I spent a lot of time in the research lab in Murray Hall [next to what is now the AEWC building] all those years ago, and it’s so exciting to see what is happening here years later,” Svoboda said after the press conference. “We need the close proximity and tie-in to this center as we continue the research and development of several new bridge types beyond the arch. That will be a key component for us.”
Svoboda first approached Dagher for the purpose of exploring wind-power technology, another area the wood composite center is exploring. When he and Rasmus got a look at the center’s bridge technology, however, and saw how close it was to being implemented, their interest took a turn.
Back in Pittsfield, Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said construction of the Neal Bridge rankled some in the local business community because it forced trucks to take a lengthy detour around the closed span. But there have been no complaints since the bridge opened in December.
“Everything has been going well,” Ruth said.