UM Wood Center Gets $2M U.S. Grant: Design of Corrosion-Resistant Materials Sought

By Ruth-Ellen Cohen, Bangor Daily News

ORONO – The University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center has received $2 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to design and develop corrosion-resistant materials for waterfront construction projects. 

The materials currently used in waterfront projects all have drawbacks, professor Habib Dagher,  AEWC’s director, said Monday. Steel rusts, concrete breaks up under the freeze-and-thaw cycle and wood is destroyed by ship worms. 

“This will be a new generation of materials that will outlast what we have today,” he said during a gathering at the AEWC, where the grant was announced to a crowd that included faculty, students, administrators, staff and legislators. 

Repairing and rebuilding piers, wharves, sheet pilings and bridge abutments costs this country billions of dollars each year, Dagher said.

The state-of-the-art composites laboratory at the AEWC already has developed a wood-plastic building material that is impervious to corrosion and that won’t harm the environment. It is less than half the weight of concrete, is recyclable and can be made fire-retardant. But it’s not yet strong enough for large, heavy-duty, industrial applications. 

Now, thanks to the new three-year grant secured by U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, AEWC can continue its work. The money is part of the $48 million transportation funding package supported by Maine’s entire congressional delegation. 

“Other universities and private entities are in a race to develop the technologies,” Dagher said. “Without this funding we wouldn’t be in the race.” 

The goal is for the university to lead the development of the material and for the state to benefit by job spin-offs, he added.

UM President Robert Kennedy said that the grant “exemplifies the value of the quality of the research” done at the university. “The combination of expertise, research infrastructure and commitment to make Maine a better place all exist right here.”

Michaud also heaped praise on the composites center, saying that he has “never been let down” by the way research and development money has been used at the Orono campus. “I’ll continue fighting to make sure we get more than our fair share of R and D dollars,” he told the group.

The new building material developed by the AEWC is made of recycled plastics from milk jugsand soda bottles and from recycled construction debris or sawdust from mills. The product itself is recyclable.

“One hundred years from now it won’t be a hazardous waste,” said Dagher. “It can be reground into pellets and used again. So we’re not leaving a bad legacy for the next generation.”

Chris West, lab engineering specialist at the AEWC, said during a demonstration of the new technologies that the wood would not rot because it is encompassed by the plastic, which contains a UV inhibitor and fire retardants.

“No one’s ever made this design – it’s totally new,” he said.

During the final year of the grant, the technologies will be used to build demonstration projects, Dagher said. “Then the industry can see what can be done and the AEWC will work with the industry and start producing the materials.”

About 10 people will work on the project, including two full-time technicians and five graduate and undergraduate students, he said.

The new composite material could be showcased this fall in Greenville. Officials there want to use it to rebuild Junction Wharf, the only public boat launch on the southern end of Moosehead Lake. Some of the grant money will be used to design the new project.

Greenville Town Manager John Simko told the group that the structure had been rebuilt 12 years ago using untreated hemlock lumber. Now it’s deteriorating and is unsafe.

“Even if the [new material] ends up costing more than the hemlock, the savings will be immense because we won’t have to replace it as frequently,” Simko said in an interview.