Composite Strength


Voters who two years ago supported the state’s first attempt to fuel its university system with money for research and development now can see their investment in action. The University of Maine’s new wood-composite lab melds Maine’s traditional natural- resource-based economy with a high-tech future.

At UMaine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center, wood products are subjected to simulated earthquakes, deep freezes and extraordinarily hot, muggy days. The equivalent of 2 million pounding trucks pummel potential bridge beams and what must be the world’s most intense tanning bed exposes wood samples to decades’ worth of ultraviolet light in just a couple of weeks. Through mega-weights on 50-foot joists and microscopic examinations of the connection between wood and carbon fiber, the center is creating lighter, tougher, longer-lasting products out of tree species that traditionally have been used for little more than firewood.

The results can be seen around the state and beyond, with dozens of recent or planned projects to develop piers, bridges, hurricane- resistant sheathing, lightweight structural support for construction, decking from sawdust and resin and even polymer floorboards for Chevy Corvettes. Waste wood or less desirable species for industry are being turned into objects of value; with the right mix of adhesive and carbon or glass fiber, thin pieces of wood, or just the scraps, are taking the place of massive wooden beams. This approach is environmentally sound and considerably more efficient than cutting down and milling the biggest trees that can be found.

The center, under the direction of Habib J. Dagher, is especially valuable, however, not just for the products it has devised or the people it employs and students it educates. Maine currently has 40 to 50 composite businesses, including a very active boat-building sector. The center can serve these and new companies as an incubator, where ideas come in, are designed, made into prototypes and tested all in a matter of a few months. The accumulated knowledge gives Maine a real advantage in a tough field.

And voters, at least in part, can thank themselves for it. The approval of the R&D bond in 1998 and the continued public support for research money has allowed places such as the center to grow and thrive. These places are proving that, given the chance, they can give back many times what was invested in them.