Research center broadens focus beyond pulp, paper

Monday, June 2, 2014 8:35 AM
Last updated 6:56 PM
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ATLANTA -- A multidisciplinary research center at Georgia Tech is the latest to expand its focus beyond the pulp and paper industry, but industry insiders say it’s not a sign of economic weakness in the digital era.

“It speaks more to where forest-fiber products are heading in the future,” said Norman Marsolan, director of the center.

Effective Sunday, the Institute of Paper Science and Technology becomes the Renewable Bioproducts Institute. It’s following the example of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center in Savannah which is part of Georgia Southern University. Named for the Georgia chemist whose breakthroughs led to commercial development of southern pines for paper production at Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory, it changed to its present moniker and expanded mission in 2006.

The name changes represent the maturity of the pulp and paper industry, not its demise, according to Dale Greene, a forestry professor at the University of Georgia.

“The paper business is not going away,” he said. “That is a research institute. We’ve known how to make paper for years.”

If there is less need for figuring out more efficient ways to make and use paper, there is still plenty to discover about alternative uses of wood fibers which are already incorporated in chemicals, medicines and even flat-screen televisions. New uses being explored include biodegradable solar panels, auto parts and disease detection.

“There are a lot of things happening in paper still, but the traditional -- we’ll say writing use --of paper is declining,” Marsolan said.

In recent years in Georgia, some large mills have closed creating local job displacements, but experts said they were outdated and no sign that the industry has disappeared. Indeed, Georgia-Pacific and Kimberly Clark are two industry giants headquartered in the state.

Paper manufacturing in Georgia totaled $11 billion in 2012, the latest figures available from the American Forest & Paper Association. Its 19,000 jobs earned $1.6 billion collectively at 172 mills across the state.

An in a state where two-thirds of the land is forest, mostly privately owned, the industry’s vibrancy is important to landowners who benefit from research into new uses for trees.

“If you’ve got timber for sale in South Georgia, you’ve got a smile on your face,” Greene said.

Far from retreating, Tech’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute is adding faculty and launching new research avenues. But it’s not turning its back on the industry that brought it here from Wisconsin in 1989 where it was founded as the Institute of Paper Chemistry 85 years ago.

“We will continue to enjoy a large connection and research element that connects with our pulp and paper industry,” Marsolan said.

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