ORONO, Maine — Researchers at the University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Advanced Structures and Composites Center are hoping that a new building material developed at the school will change the way homes are built.
Wood composites researchers recently were issued a patent for their Multifunctional Reinforcement System — a modified version of oriented strand board, the building material used as sheathing in roofs, walls and floors in most homes.
“We were trying to solve two problems at the same time,” said Steve Shaler, professor of wood science at the University of Maine and associate director of the wood composites center.
The first problem with oriented strand boards is swelling that occurs when it absorbs water around the edges. This isn’t necessarily a huge problem with walls and roofs, but when floors swell, it makes laying a flat floor harder.
The second problem is its durability. Roof sheathing is vulnerable to high winds if not fastened properly. In some Florida housing developments, that was exactly the case, according to Shaler.
“The classic story is when Hurricane Andrew went through Homestead, Fla., the panels were lying everywhere,” Shaler said. “That was such a large property loss, insurance companies almost went out of business.”
Five years ago, lead inventors Shaler and Douglas Gardner and postdoctoral students undertook the research to develop a coating to address these problems.
“The concept is, you combine inorganic fibers, such as glass, with a polymer, like polyester,” Shaler said. Only the edges of the board are coated, “which keeps costs down.”
There had been previous work done at the center in designing building materials resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes. In 2004, the wood composites center was issued a patent for its disaster -resistant panels, or AOSBs — oriented strand boards with thin sheets of synthetic reinforcements built inside the edges.
The multifunctional reinforcement system builds on the idea of the disaster-resistant panel, but requires a less intensive production process. Pre-existing boards can be coated with the synthetic reinforcement; the reinforcement doesn’t have to be built in. The result is a board that not only stays nailed down, but also resists water, according to Shaler.
“Anytime you’re changing things that might add cost, it’s a good idea to solve two problems at the same time,” said Shaler.
Whether the concept will be put to use now in homes is uncertain. Shaler sees it two ways: “Right now with the housing-construction market down low … it’s an opportunity. Conversely, times are tough for all companies in this business segment,” he said.
Habib Dagher, director of the composites lab, said the wood composites center plans to pursue the manufacturing of the panels, as it has done with other projects.
“We work with companies to license the patent,” he said.
The “Bridge in a Backpack,” designed by the wood composites center, resulted in the Maine-based spin-off company Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, a company that hopes to build six new bridges in Maine over the next several years.
“Our number one priority is to work with a Maine company,” Dagher said. “I expect the same thing will happen with this patent.”