Brunswick Technologies Inc. and the University of Maine have teamed up to develop a fiberglass-reinforced composite panel using wood waste. The Department of Energy is footing 45 percent of the project's total cost of $170,000; BTI and UMaine are contributing the rest in cash and resources.
``It's an innovative marriage of wood byproducts and textile reinforcing fibers to develop new hybrid panels that can be marketed commercially to the construction industry,'' said Martin Grimnes, chief executive and owner of the Brunswick, Maine, firm.
The project also unites industry and academia, as stipulated by the DOE grant, which runs through August and was awarded through the Center for Technology Transfer, a nonprofit outfit in Portland, Maine.
The partnership's goal is to demonstrate the viability of the composite panel product, not to engineer new technology, Grimnes said by telephone Dec. 1. But a primary motive is to find a better use for Maine's No. 1 natural resource: wood.
The project especially is tar-geting wood waste and lower-grade species of trees, such as poplars, which grow like weeds but are not very strong, Grimnes said. On a per-square-mile basis Maine is the most heavily forested state in the country, said UMaine spokesman Jake Ward. Much of that timber is used to make paper, which uses just 40 percent of the tree and wastes the rest, Grimnes said. Maine transports nearly 3,000 tons of wood waste to be landfilled out of state each day, at a price of $98 million a year, Grimnes said.
``And that's what we're looking at taking advantage of,'' he said.
His firm's niche is in developing machines to make heavy-weight fabric, predominantly of fiberglass, which is sewn into nylon, polyester or, sometimes, glass. Its expertise is in orienting reinforcing fibers, and doing it cost effectively, he said.
UMaine has strong ties with the paper and wood processing industries. The Portland university's Wood Science and Technology program, which is heading up the panel research, handpicked BTI as its partner in the project, Ward said.
As a team they hope to develop a hybrid composite panel that can compete with established products, such as plywood, particle board and oriented strand board. A market study, under way since September, will map out those competitors' strengths and weaknesses in terms of their structural properties, processability, ease of handling, environmental concerns - and cost.
``If this is going to be a more costly product, you need to justify why it's going to cost more and whether the market will pay for it. There are definitely going to be products that Georgia-Pacific [Resins Inc.] can make that are so cost-effective and cheap we can't touch them,'' Grimnes said.
But, he added that the North American market for plywood and like materials is huge, about $5 billion a year, and even a small piece of that could mean big gains for BTI. In fact, BTI has first dibs on commercializing the panel, should it get to that stage. But, if the project shows that the panel is not feasible - ``if this has to be spun by a young maiden turning gold into hay,'' as Grimnes said - then the company won't follow through.
The $75,725 grant is part of DOE's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. EPSCOR targets states, like Maine, that have not received much government money for research and development, said CTT project manager Tom Lynott. CTT selected the BTI-UMaine project from four competing submissions, all collaborations between private firms and research universities.
Norway-born Grimnes, 48, started BTI in 1984. In December the firm began moving its six machines to a new, 50,000-square-foot plant in Brunswick, where production should be in full swing by May. Grimnes said he expects material sales this year of more than $16 million.
BTI and UMaine linked up earlier this year for the Maine Composites Alliance, a group formed to exploit new opportunities in plastics.