OLD TOWN, Maine — A research and technology hub that one day could help wean the United States off foreign oil opened Monday in a former paper products shipping bay on the grounds of Old Town Fuel and Fiber.
The 40,000-square-foot Technology Research Center will provide researchers from the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute and across the globe a place to develop and analyze new products and techniques that convert wood chips, grass and other biomass into useful materials such as fuel and plastics.
The goal of the center’s research is to make these products commercially viable as alternatives to petroleum-based products.
“This particular facility would not be possible without that vision and investment in the future, where dollars come together, where ideas become reality,” UMaine President Paul Ferguson said. He said the project embodies the university’s land-grant goals of developing Maine’s economy while using the state’s natural resources in a sustainable way.
UMaine System Chancellor James Page and Ferguson said the facility stems from a “remarkable partnership” between UMaine, municipalities, federal and state agencies and private companies.
“When they come together in this kind of public-private partnership, it can mean great things for Maine and great things for the nation,” Ferguson said.
Local, national and international companies will have access to equipment and floor space at the research center. Researchers with the center said they expect dozens of products to be studied and developed there.
Susan MacKay, president of Cerahelix, an Orono-based company that is working to develop a commercially viable ceramic nanofiltration system for use in water purification systems, said the research center will provide her space to study and conduct larger-scale tests.
MacKay started another company — Zeomatrix, which produces an odor-absorbing paper used to control landfill stench — that also will benefit from the work going on at the Technology Research Center, she said.
The uses of products derived from wood chips and other biomass vary widely. Some methods of processing wood draw out acetic acid, which is often used to flavor french fries, according to the research institute’s director, Hemant Pendse.
Researchers and officials from UMaine, representatives of Maine’s wood products industry and politicians attended the opening and took tours of the new facility on Monday.
Stations were set up in the center to display some of the research that is taking place. In one part of the building, one of several experimental formulas for wood pellets was in production. In another, researchers showed samples of different types of fuel oils, alcohols and chemicals drawn from the biomass.
The Forest Bioproducts Research Institute was created in 2006 through a nearly $7 million research infrastructure improvement grant from the National Science Foundation. UMaine matched half that amount and the state appropriated $10.35 million. The Technology Research Center facility was funded by a $4.8 million Maine Technology Asset Fund grant. Old Town Fuel and Fiber also contributed $2 million.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said work conducted in the research center will lead to new industry and new jobs — ranging from forestry to chemical engineering — in the state.
“Today’s opening is an exciting step forward for new technologies that have the potential to revitalize Maine’s economy,” Michaud said during the ceremony. “That’s what it’s all about, revitalizing Maine’s economy and finding new ways of doing things, and this center is going to be at the center of that.”
U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins sent representatives to the event and issued statements hailing the groups that worked together to develop the research facility.
“As the most heavily forested state in the United States, Maine has a tremendous asset that has powered our state for generations,” Snowe wrote. “This facility will continue to advance Maine’s efforts to take advantage of this resource to expand our economy.”