a65d16c55f7088ed-stateaward3Gov. Baldacci introduces the winners of the awards with Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, John Richardson. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Bottles made from wood or potatoes — the research moves forward with an award


October/November 2008

Article by Ramona du Houx

Next time you pick up a bottle of water, take a moment to realize what made that container — oil. In countries around the globe, we package products in petroleum-based containers, from plastic bags to bottled water to the toys babies teethe on. In the South Pacific, discarded plastics have gathered in the ocean where various currents converge, making an island miles deep of petroleum-based plastics. These plastics are killing off wildlife, polluting the planet for hundreds of years. Think of the difference it would make to be drinking water from a bottle that will decompose naturally, a bottle made from a potato or wood base.

It’s possible. It’s probable.

This is just one of many types of innovative research taking place at the University of Maine (UM). It’s one of the many reasons UM recently was recently granted funds from the Maine Technology Asset Fund Awards (MTAFA).

“In addition, from using the starch from potatoes, we are looking to use sugar from wood to produce biodegradable bottles. That’s where the synergy is,” said UM Professor Hemant Pendse, chairman of the university’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “It’s about getting the materials that will support the microorganisms of these products, from wood or agriculture.”

MTI President Betsy Biemann (photo left)said to awardees, “There’s no doubt this will help move Maine’s economy forward

The range of research being conducted at UM is impressive.

“We have half a dozen products we will phase in, with the assistance of this new funding. There are a lot of new products that we are talking about, in addition to bioplastics, which will help further research into advanced materials. There is nanocellular—which gets us into new composites and industrial chemicals that go beyond what we are doing now. Some of these technologies are only three years away from being able to be commercially viable,” said Pendse. “They need to be tested and validated in this technology center that these funds will help us to build.”

Michael Bilodeau, director of the UM Pulp and Paper Process Development Center added, “The funds will help us produce the products on a larger scale, not just a laboratory scale. This will enable us to do test marketing. So we can show companies that the technology really works. We can put it into the field.”

Producing products made to actual market size will assist any business start-up that wishes to use the technology, cutting down the time it takes to prove its viability commercially.

There are many states that invest in research and development and have good facilities, but Maine has begun to stand out and has been attracting some of the best scientist from around the world.

“The last five years we have invested a lot in getting the best cutting-edge facility that our researchers need, which has allowed us to attract faculty members to come here from around the world. We go and find the experts that we need and recruit them to come here. We just hired three new faculty members in the forest products area. It’s tough competition out there, because good people can go anywhere. We want the best here,” said Pendse. “The new collaborations that we have been making in the last three years also help to attract researchers here. They are unique to Maine. We have engineers working with foresters, pulp-paper people working with wood-composite people: all these groups talking together only happens in Maine. There aren’t any universities where all four groups work together. It makes us unique.”

“In addition to that, we have built good connections with the landowners and agricultural groups, which means we can actually go from feedstock to product quickly. This makes the synergy much stronger,” said Bilodeau. “We have good relationships with the paper industry, and they are looking to get the most value out of the wood they buy. Increased value means increased revenues, so they are very interested in the technologies we are developing.”

Taking an agricultural product, developing a new use for it, adds value and opens doors to markets around the world. It is this type of collaboration that Karen Mills, a venture capitalist and MTAFA board member, hoped would continue to develop in Maine, when she began volunteering on various State councils, set up by the governor to help the state grow economically.

The $50 million bond issue for innovation technology investments that the people of Maine voted for a year ago will help position the state into the global economy. Mills has spent the last three years helping this transition.

“This will help jumpstart Maine’s economy. These various clusters now have some needed funds to move forward. It’s exciting to see all different projects represented by the awards, and it’s been an honor being able to serve,” said Mills. “In these economically uncertain times, continuing to invest in Maine’s future technologies will make the state stronger.”

Thirteen other applicants, in addition to UMO, will share in the first round of awards totaling $30 million in bond funds designed to advance the development of new technologies and promote economic growth in Maine through innovation.

The projects that received the first wave of funding were announced by Governor John Baldacci and Betsy Biemann, president of the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) at the Statehouse.

“The projects that are receiving support today will develop and bring new technologies to market, boosting the state’s economy and creating and sustaining good jobs,” said Governor Baldacci. “These are smart investments in our state’s technology sectors to transition to a 21st-century economy, building on our strengths. Over the years, these investments have generated new good-paying jobs across our state and leveraged federal funding for path-breaking centers of excellence.”

The MTAFA awards are strategically targeted to help stimulate areas of growth that are already underway in the state. These areas of strength have been identified as clusters. When businesses, educational or nonprofit, align themselves and work together because of a common bond, it has been found to grow economies. They share research, experiences, transportation costs, and sometimes advertising costs. As a united front, like the Maine Boat Builders consortium, they have a stronger voice in the marketplace and can draw more attention to their products or services.

“The competitive application process of the fund is extremely important, because it encourages collaboration among our universities, nonprofit research laboratories, and for-profit innovative businesses,” said Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson. “This kind of collaboration has been proven to bring new technologies from the lab directly to the market, such as our composite technology and its application today in our boatbuilding industry.”

Awards covered projects that are located from Standish to Orono to Beals, in all seven of Maine’s technology sectors, and will help to develop technologies that build on Maine cluster industries in aquaculture, forestry, and agriculture, genetics, nanotechnology, global positioning, high-resolution imaging, ceramics, and composites.

“With a strong field of 66 applications and requests for $113 million, it was clear from the first that these awards would be highly competitive,” said MTI President Betsy Biemann. “There’s no doubt this will help move Maine’s economy forward; the technologies are cutting edge and have global implications.”

The recipients represent technologies that build on cluster industries such as agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture, genetics, nanotechnology, and global positioning.

For additional information about the awards visit: http://www.mainetechnology.org.

• Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research & Education, Beals, $1 million.


• Advanced Nanocomposites for the Renewable Energy and Transportation Industries, University of Maine, $5 million.

• Forest Bioproducts Research Technology Center, University of Maine, $4.8 million.

• The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, $4.7 million.

• University of New England College of Pharmacy, Portland, $4 million.

• Seldon Technologies, Inc., Old Town, $2.9 million.

• Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research, University of Maine, $2.6 million.

• Sappi Fine Paper Technology Center, Westbrook, $2.2 million.

• Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research & Education, Beals, $1 million.