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UMaine’s Paper Days focuses on future of nanofibers, biofuels and industries that will benefit Maine

Nick McCrea | BDN
Nick McCrea | BDN
Hemant Pendse (center), director of the University of Maine's Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, and Michael Bilodeau (right), director of UMaine's Process Development Center, lead U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud on a tour of the university's new Cellulose Nanofiber Pilot Plant during the Paper Days conference on April 3, 2013.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — The most exciting thing about cellulose nanofibers could be that we don’t yet know the most exciting thing about cellulose nanofibers, paper industry experts said Wednesday.

University of Maine researchers updated more than 300 forestry and paper industry officials, stakeholders and politicians on what the university’s research could mean for the future during the first day of the 63rd annual Paper Days at UMaine.

The nanofibers are derived from wood chips, which are broken down and processed into a white, gooey, odorless, tasteless cream with seemingly boundless potential.

Researchers know of many current and future uses, ranging from a thickener in yogurt to stiffening wind turbine blades and building materials to body armor.

Bangor High School sophomore Mary Butler recently won the Maine State Science and Engineering Fair for her project to create an inexpensive water filtration system using cellulose nanofibers. She was recognized at Wednesday’s event.

But there are many more uses that no one has thought of yet, according to Michael Bilodeau, director of UMaine’s Process Development Center, which is celebrating its 25th year.

Researchers are only “a few years off” from developing a wallpaper derived from nanocellulose that can display television images, as well as other physically flexible electronics, according to Sean Ireland, manager of new technologies and market ventures for Verso Paper Inc.

Maine’s extensive experience in harvesting, managing and sustaining swaths of forest for the paper industry place it in an ideal position to lead the nation in the nanofiber industry, Ireland said.

The university on Wednesday celebrated the opening of its Cellulose Nanofiber Pilot Plant, which is capable of producing up to a ton of nanofiber per day, making it unique in the United States, according to Hemant Pendse, director of the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute. The plant was funded through a $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

UMaine researchers first began producing and experimenting with cellulose fibers about four years ago, but were only able to produce it on a smaller bench scale. The new plant will allow them to produce samples on a much larger scale.

Those samples are shared with businesses, who collaborate with the university to find uses relevant to their industry. The effort plays a role in the university’s continuing push to build on public-private partnerships that has been stressed both by UMaine President Paul Ferguson and University of Maine System Chancellor James Page.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Angus King spoke at Wednesday’s event, calling on the federal government to prioritize research and development despite the difficult budgetary climate.

“Since Maine’s introduction as a state, foresters have fostered creative ways to harvest and utilize the land for our benefit, and as a result, they laid the foundations for economic growth that continue to benefit us today,” King said Wednesday. “But, now, it’s each of you — the students, researchers and industry representatives gathered here today — who maintain that economic strength through the power of ideas, collaborative research and cutting-edge technological innovation.”

Michaud said Vice President Joe Biden told him in 2009 that he would be willing to visit the University of Maine to see the cellulose, composite materials and offshore wind turbine research efforts taking place there. That visit has yet to happen, and Michaud said he would continue to urge the vice president to come to Orono. In the meantime, he said he would continue to “brag about” the research going on at UMaine.

Paper Days continue Thursday with a tour of the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute’s Technology Research Center, which opened in the summer of 2012 in Old Town. That facility is home to research on creating biofuels and plastics from biomass.

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