By Ramona du Houx

November 1, 2010

In Aroostook County, fallow farmland is in abundance. But that may soon change, as grasslands take over. It’s not an attempt to return the land to Mother Nature — it is a groundbreaking initiative to farm grass, to be transformed into pellets, to burn for heat.
“This renewable resource could change agriculture in Maine,” said Professor Hemant Pendse of the UMaine, who will be working on the grass-energy crop development, pellet and boiler efficiency testing. “It’s great for the farming community and businesses that are ready to take the technology and deploy it to the north, and eventually all over the state.”

The UMaine project was given a boost in October when it received a Maine Technology Asset Fund (MTAF) grant close to $1.7 million.

“It’s less expensive to create biofuel from grass, because it’s easier to dry and harvest than wood. The hay pellets will have a higher heating premium value than wood,” said Michael Bilodeau from the UMaine, who is in charge of the project. “We are working with he UMaine Cooperative Extension program and farmers. I’m very excited to be working with the community to diversify the economy with this sustainable energy source.”

The commercialization of the product will be done in the north. The award will also enable the acquisition and installation of research equipment at the Process Development Center. This center located at Old Town Fuel and Fiber, was, previously funded in part by an MTAF grant.

A total of $7.25 million in MTAF grants were announced at the state house by Governor John Baldacci and Betsy Biemann, president of the Maine Technology Institute (MTI), the agency that administers the awards.

“The projects that are receiving support today will develop and bring new technologies to market and boost the state’s economy. These are smart investments in our technology sectors that build on our strengths,” said Governor Baldacci. “These grants are a key component to the growth of Maine’s innovation economy. The awards make sure the people of Maine benefit from the investments, helping companies create jobs.”

Another alternative energy project, Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) of Portland, received $1.2 million. ORPC could have started his business in Nova Scotia, where the tides are comparable to Eastport, but the company chose Maine.

“Maine, despite what some people say, is a great state to do business. We have had tremendous support at all levels of state government,” said Chris Sauer, CEO of ORPC. “We now have the largest ocean-energy power system installed in the U.S. We like say we are the Kitty Hawk of tidal power in Eastport. The project that is in the water was funded, in small part, by an MTAF grant. The award today will be for the first grid-connected power system in the U.S. for ocean energy. It will be two and a half times the size of the system deployed now. It will be exciting for Maine and the whole U.S. and put us on the map.”

The MAFT grants are unique cluster development tools that bring expertise from scientists at educational facilities to companies, and jobs related to the projects to communities. ORPC is an example of that synergy in practice. They are working with two dozen Maine companies. Their turbines are made from composite materials built by US Windblade in Bath. The support structure also contains composite materials fabricated by Harbor Technologies in Brunswick. These composite materials were developed with research experts at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center at Orono.

Another project funded by MATF grants will turn potatoes into bioplastics that do not harm the environment.

Packgen of Auburn, the grant recipient of close to $1 million, also worked with the specialists at UMaine’s Advance Composites Center.

“We’ve created a fifty-five gallon drum, using composites to form the cylinder containers, with tensile strengths comparable to steel. They have a ten-to-one ratio in terms of weight, so you can ship ten times more per every truck,” said Packgen President John Lapoint. “It’s a huge breakthrough. We worked with UMaine composites laboratories to make it lighter, stronger, and more practical. Their experts helped us to design into the container all the needed features a steel drum has.”

MTAF funding has proven to be key for companies and educational institutions in attracting other investments and grants.

“A lot of the time State grants like this are a signal to other investors that we think this is a good company; they know we have vetted the technology, using outside experts,” said Dr. Catherine Renault, the director of Maine’s Office of Innovation.

“When we came to Maine in 2006, our company had raised less than a million dollars; at this point in time our company has $36 million in funds that are committed or already spent,” said Sauer.

Biemann emphasized how important the initial funding from MAFT has been.

Research, in offshore wind, at UMaine received an award from MATF which helped to bring in other investments.

“ORPC received a grant in the second round of the competition. Just last week they were awarded $10 million from the Department of Energy. Bigelow Laboratory was another second round MAFT award recipient. They just received a $14 million to expand a campus in Eastport. The advanced center for composites at UMaine received $17.4 million from the federal government, after initially receiving a grant from MAFT in the first round,” she said.
UMaine’s research and development programs promote collaborations with businesses and the community, to ensure graduating students are given opportunities to live and earn good incomes in the state. MAFT grants help that process, as students often work on the projects.

The average wage for the technology sector is $48,000 dollars, which is 37 percent higher than the average job in Maine. In 2008, even though the economy was in decline, Maine’s technology companies had a 36 percent growth in revenues.

According to the Department of Economic and Community Development, every dollar awarded leverages more than $14 in public and private funds for the innovation economy.

“We have companies like Proctor and Gamble, Old Town Canoe, and Old Town Fuel and Fiber, who are looking for innovative ways to get a leg up in this economy. These grants connect businesses with our researchers to develop innovative technologies. The people of Maine value these awards and approved $53 million for them with bonds,” said Baldacci.

Three years ago a Governor’s Task Force under the direction of Karen Mills identified areas where cluster development should be enhanced. Mills is now the U.S. administrator of the Small Business Administration. Mills recently stated that she is implementing similar programs on a national level, using Maine as a model. Her work for Maine culminated when voters approved MTAF bond investments.

“The MTAF awards serve as a catalyst for Maine’s economy by funding cutting-edge technology development in some of Maine’s most entrepreneurial companies and research organizations,” said Biemann. “We had 130 teams, from companies to research institutes, apply for these grants over three years, asking for $230 million — five times as what was available.”

This was last round of awards.

“We have built a solid foundation, so that future administrations and Legislatures will want to replenish these resources to continue to foster Maine’s innovative economic engine,” said the governor.

In October MTI the Maine Technology Institute was one of four national recipients of the Excellence in Technology-Based Economic Development Award from the State Science and Technology Institute (SSTI), a national nonprofit organization based in Ohio that leads efforts to improve state and regional economies through science, technology and innovation.

MTI received the award for MTAF.

The MTAF awardees:

• UMaine Advanced Biomechanics Laboratory, Orono: $533,300 for injury reduction and rehabilitation

• Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Portland: $532,550 for community-based research to support the Maine Lobster Industry

• Biovation LLC Laboratory, Boothbay: $125,000 for facilities for wound-care products

• UMaine Fish-lab, Orono: $600,000, for fisheries innovation, sustainability, and health lab

• UMaine Commercialization of New Technologies, Orono: $497,392 for animal disease surveillance

• UMaine, Orono: $1,659,655 for biomass engineered fuel

• Ocean Renewable Power Corp. Maine, Portland and Eastport: $1,200,000, tidal generation power system commercialization project

• UMaine: $250,000 for Cyberinfrastructure Investment for Development, Economic Growth and Research (CIDER)

• Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor: $900,000 for complex workflow management

• Packgen, Auburn: $950,000 for the E-Pack Drum, an environmentally friendly alternative to the 55-gallon steel drum.