ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine is testing wood planted during the Great Depression to determine whether it could stand up as construction material or give a much needed boost to Maine’s mill industry.
Researchers at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center are breaking about 1,320 boards cut from trees harvested in Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin and four sections of New York state.
They’re using hydraulic machines and pressure sensors to test the breaking point of the boards. That data will be passed on to the American Lumber Standards Committee, according to Russell Edgar, wood composites manager at the center. That committee ultimately will decide whether the Norway spruce makes the cut and should be added to the list of approved construction-grade lumber.
“Everyone is hopeful because it’s already been tested and proven in Europe,” where it is commonly used in construction, according to Stephen Shaler, director of UMaine’s School of Forest Resources.
The Norway spruce isn’t native to the United States but was introduced in large numbers during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a group established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to undertake conservation projects and put Americans back to work. The corps planted some 3 billion trees during its nine years in existence.
The species has never been approved to be used in construction in the United States. It’s still used to some extent, primarily as pulp and Christmas trees. This marks the first time in 80 years that a new tree species has been considered for inclusion in U.S. building standards.
If an American wanted to build a home using Norway spruce, they could; however, they would have to order the lumber from Europe. They couldn’t use wood from the same species if grown in America, Edgar said.
Bringing the Norway spruce into the market would open up economic opportunities for landowners with Norway spruce on their property, manufacturers and possibly Maine’s struggling mills, Shaler sad.
Testing is still in its early stages. The team had only broken about 200 of the boards as of Friday, and they expect to wrap up tests in early spring.
UMaine issued a proposal to conduct this research and won a competitive federal grant to launch the project.
Shaler said this testing is being done with relatively little cost. The portion of the grant that covers this testing is worth about $80,000. The university already had the hydraulic equipment necessary to do the testing and is using a mix of students and staff to run the tests.
“This is like falling off a log for us. We break stuff all the time,” Shaler said.
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