An economic engine for innovative entrepreneurs and businesses in Maine and around the world
By Ramona du Houx
April 9th, 2009
Director of the University of Maine AEWC, Dr Habib Dagher at a presentation of his bridge in a backpack. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Technologies developed there are being used by the U.S. military, various departments of transportation across the country, and boat builders, to name a few.
Since 2001 the AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center has expanded product lines for 43 existing companies, improved products of 30 Maine companies, and have helped with the creation of 12 new Maine companies. The man behind the research center is Director Habib Dagher.
“In a couple of months we expect to break ground for a wind-energy research center here, as an extension of this lab,” said Dagher. “It will allow us to manufacture windmill components of the towers and blades, right in the lab where we will be able to test them. We will be able to put them through 20 to 30 years of wear in tests to see how they hold up. This will give us the ability to be innovative with the next generation of components.”
Dagher said creating windmill components and their platforms with AEWC technologies and manufacturing them here in Maine could create thousands of sustainable jobs.
“We have great opportunities for offshore and onshore wind in Maine. A year and a half ago we discovered that within 50 nautical miles in the Gulf of Maine, there is enough wind energy to be equivalent of 40 nuclear power plants. That’s huge. In Texas, if you discover oil what do you do? You find a way to get it out of the ground. If you’re in Maine and you discover this wind potential, you figure out the best way to create jobs, using this clean, green energy. We have a 20-year plan; it’s ambitious,” said the director.
Working with the goals outlined by the Governor’s Task Force on wind, the proposal is realistic and could make Maine a leader in producing alternative, clean energy.
“We plan to get 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind and 3,000 megawatts of onshore wind by 2020. The key is to build these structures in Maine. We could have 1,000 floating structures off the horizon. To build those windmill towers would attract $20 billion in investment in the sate of Maine,” said Dagher.
Because AEWC has been developing these technologies, Maine could become a producer of cutting-edge systems for windmills.
“Using foundation systems built out of composites, so they don’t corrode, along with the composite blades and components, all of which have been developed at AEWC, jobs will be created from spin-off companies. This offshore wind project would be the largest construction project in the state’s history, employing thousands of people,” said Dagher. “We have wonderful shipbuilding industries across the state that can become partners to work on these offshore wind projects. From an industry viewpoint, we are perfectly positioned.”
With a green revolution taking off in America, the director said the center will play a pivotal role, as composites are more environmental than conventional manufacturing processes.
“The technologies that create green-energy jobs are exactly what this lab is all about,” said Dagher.
The expansion project that will house windmill composite development was funded by a bond referendum and awarded by the Maine Technology Asset Fund. Another possible bond before the Legislature will create an important research hub for offshore wind, which the director is passionate about moving forward on. It’s necessary to ensure the offshore wind project proceeds. Dagher says investing in research and development (R&D) is key for future economic growth in the global economy.
“Innovative technologies are the future, and it’s a race to get there. The people that develop the technologies first and get them out their first get the jobs. That’s why it’s so important to invest in R&D, so those technologies develop in Maine first and are commercialized here first,” said Dagher. Governor Baldacci’s focus on R&D has been critical. Maine ten years ago was not focused on R&D a lot. Our congressional delegation has been very supportive as well.That race to the top of the innovation curve has been happening with 12 spin-off companies that have been created, in Maine, because of AEWC’s expertise under this director.
Two companies building bridges using AEWC’s composite techniques were highlighted recently at the center. Both companies, Harbor Technologies and Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, LLC (AIT), expect growth this year. The bridges that they build are lightweight and stronger than conventional steel structures; they also are corrosion free and save time in construction.
AIT will be marketing the center’s “bridge-in-a-backpack” concept, which consists of arches that are inflated on site, then filled with composite resin and concrete. Harbor Technologies already builds composite pilings from technology developed at AEWC and have been manufacturing horizontal girders for bridges, using composites. Now they will be expanding girder production, adding jobs. Both companies’ CEOs are alums of UMaine. Maine’s Department of Transportation will be using their technologies for upcoming bridge projects.
“The next step is to get approval at the national level for this technology. We can’t afford to get approval state by state. To be an approved construction technique across the country is key for both these companies,” said Dagher.
Others companies include Maine Secure Composites, who were recently awarded a DOD $12.9 million grant to develop secure shipping containers made from composite materials. These will be equipped with sensors which will alert authorities to any tampering with the containers. And a project with the Army is underway with ballistic panels.
“Congressman Michaud has been key to launching Maine’s R&D relationship with the U.S. Army, which has led to projects that could save lives. We’ve developed ballistic protection system for tents. Essentially when you walk into a tent you are virtually walking into a large helmet. The ballistic shield that we’ve put inside the tent is made out of composites materials. It’s very lightweight and extremely strong. The tent shields were approved by the Aberdeen Proving Ground so, now we’re producing them as prototypes here and shipping them to the fields in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Dagher.
The technology involves a coating applied to wood that allows it to absorb five to seven times more energy from a ballistic blast. The panels can withstand hurricane strength winds. Not only can the panels be made from recycled materials, but additional composites can be made by recycling the building panels once they no longer are needed.
“The Army is looking to have new defense requirements that would require all of their tents to have ballistic defense capabilities by 2010. They didn’t know if it was possible until now, with our ballistic tent system. The contracts for spin-off companies could be great, here in Maine. We will know more after a year of use in the field, and if the generals like them they could be approved for large-scale deployments.”
The composite ballistic panels won two of the industry’s highest awards from the American Composites Manufacture’s Association. They were the “Best of the Best” and “The People’s Choice” award, which was voted on by more than 4,000 industry representatives.
Graduate student Daniel Alvarez coauthored a technical paper on green composites with Dagher and other professors, which also won an award. With rising sea levels, new technologies are needed to limit the damage. The paper features a UMaine-patented technology for building sea walls and other waterfront retaining structures. The sea walls are made with recycled plastics and sawdust.
“We strive to be the best at what we do, being number two doesn’t win hockey championships, and number two doesn’t win economic development awards. It’s important for Maine and the economy for this center to be the best in the world at what we do,” said Dagher. “People see you get the awards and say, ‘you know those folks in Maine know what they are doing, let’s go and work with them.’ We travel the country and the world, meet with people and present. We have to ensure that our proposal is heard in the private and public sectors. The Interstate system wasn’t built because the private sector wanted it, Washington D.C. did. There are major decisions our country and state make, so it is critical we all work together.”
The composite center began as a small pilot study of Dagher’s in 1991 and has become a 48,000-square-foot testing and production facility. AEWC has averaged about $6 million in grant awards in the last few years. Dagher moved to Maine with this wife in 1986 after earning a doctorate degree.
“We fell in love with Maine, the people, their work ethic, how friendly everybody is and how everybody helps everybody else. It’s a place where you still can know your neighbors; it’s a great place to live and raise a family,” said Dagher.
Dagher is clearly a great communicator for the AEWC composites and promotes the center with a passion. As an engineer he understands the intricacies of the work involved in the creative, highly technological processes his students go through. As the director of the center, he realizes the best ideas in the world won’t see the light of day unless they are promoted properly.
“It’s all about hard work and working in teams. We’re blessed with a terrific group of people. It’ a privilege to work with them,” he said.
The working collaboration the AEWC director has with the public and private sectors has led and continues to lead to success for Maine and the AEWC center. Over 97 percent of funds for the center’s operations come from outside of Maine. When Dagher started 23 years ago, he was in charge of four employees. Now there are 140 employees, of whom 123 were undergraduate students in 2008, and 90 percent of them are from Maine.
The students at the laboratory share his ambitions for their research projects to shine on the world stage. At the center they learn all the aspects of R&D and get to test out their ideas in laboratories; in some cases students have patents from their innovations.
“I tell students, if you want to be the best in the world in your profession, then we want you in this laboratory,” said Dagher. “Our goal is to educate students at this university and create wonderful technologies and attract businesses that will use these technologies. It all works together,” said Dagher. “With more R&D funding, more students are educated. They are our future and our number-one export from our lab to Maine.”