Paper Schools: Forging the Future

Leaders at nine US universities weigh in on
partnerships, innovation, and current research.

COMPILED BY JON KERR, EDITED BY JAN BOTTIGLIERI

James Bond wouldn’t be James Bond without his cool gadgets—the cutting-edge tools that keep the bad guys guessing. Of course, the movies never show us how Q develops those amazing technologies. Our guess is that Q has graduate students. Lots and lots of graduate students.

At “pulp and paper schools” all over the world, expert instructors are leading teams of student researchers to develop and define the future of the forest products industries—constantly pushing the limits of what we can do with our current technologies while working to unlock new potential in forest raw materials. In the US, most of these schools are supported by foundations that serve as a linking point between industry and academia. Strong partnerships are a key factor in guiding research and implementing results.

We have been successful in industrial partnerships by being flexible and interacting with the companies in the way that they are most comfortable,” says Dr. Gary M. Scott, professor and chair, Paper and Bioprocess Engineering at SUNY-ESF. “Our pilot plant continues to be a resource for companies that need to do pilot and scale-up work. Organizations such as the Syracuse Pulp and Paper Foundation (SPPF) and the Empire State Paper Research Institute (ESPRI) continue to foster interaction with industry.”

Other models of successful partnerships between academia and industry include consulting projects, seminars and short courses, suggests Dr. Douglas W. Coffin, professor, Chemical, Paper and Biomedical Engineering at Miami University. “The ideal situation would be a consortium of companies contributing for a project that is aimed at improving our knowledge base of pre-competitive fundamentals of the performance of paper and paper products,” he says.

Research always involves an element of risk, as resources are directed toward an outcome that is, by definition, unproven. “The particular risk in the academic pulp and paper environment arises from the tension between the industry’s need for solutions to immediate technical problems and the academic standards for excellence in fundamental research,” notes Dr. Zhihua Jiang, assistant professor, Department of Chemical Engineering and director of the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering. “The academic response is to apply advanced scientific principles to long-standing industry problems. While this satisfies peer expectations, this approach fails to respond to industry urgency, so serious industry support is not sustained. The beginning of an answer to this conundrum lies in a mutual recognition of its existence, followed by the implementation of an actionable plan to form strategic partnerships to produce results.”

One problem is that ideas far outweigh funding resources. According to Dr. Stephen Kelley, professor and head of the Department of Forest Biomaterials at North Carolina State University, current methods used to connect ideas with research dollars are highly ineffective; only about 10 percent of research proposals are accepted, thus researchers spend a lot of time pursuing funding they never receive. Kelley suggests a technology transfer model focused less on detailed proposals and more on presenting problem-solving aspects of innovative projects. 

This addresses two issues: first, academic effort is now spent in generation of ideas and creation of innovative solutions to problems rather than generating proposals that are of low likelihood to be funded; and second, funders can rapidly explore and vet ideas for investments that fit with their current product offerings or solve a particular problem. This would create true partnerships between academics and research funders. In my opinion, innovation is most effective with a true partnership,” he says. 

In the end, each side needs to understand what the other side can deliver. “The link between academia and industry used to be the research centers of paper companies. These are mostly gone now,” adds Coffin. “Most academic researchers cannot answer everyday mill problems because they do not have the daily exposure to the industrial environment. We do have lots of knowledge about our respective field study and can make worthy contributions.”

We asked nine leading US universities with forest products-based research laboratories for an update on their programs and activities. All are members of the Pulp and Paper Education and Research Alliance (PPERA). Each PPERA university partner has various supportive relationships with industry and government designed to strengthen the contributions of higher education to the pulp, paper, and allied industries.

Auburn University, Auburn, AL

Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering

Auburn Pulp and Paper Foundation

Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering (AC-PABE) conducts fundamental and applied research aligned with the industry’s research agenda. Research focuses on advanced manufacturing technologies in pulping, brownstock washing, bleaching, and papermaking. Another area of research is value-added applications and products from lignocellulose biomass.

One of Auburn’s newest initiatives is to actively offer a range of research and technical services to pulp and paper and allied industries; students from the pulp and paper scholarship program, supported by Auburn Pulp and Paper Foundation, gain experience in these industry-aligned research and testing projects. This initiative has gained strong support from the school’s industrial partners.

Miami University, Oxford, OH

Department of Chemical, Paper and Biomedical Engineering

Paper Science and Engineering Foundation

Miami’s strong paper engineering curriculum dates back to 1957; the Paper Science and Engineering Foundation was established in 1960, as the first PS&E students were graduating. The foundation started with a number of donations from area paper mills and immediately began a scholarship program; while that tradition continues, the foundation’s role now extends to helping industry partners connect with Miami’s engineering talent.

Working within the university’s Chemical, Paper and Biomedical Engineering department, the PS&E Foundation has dedicated significant funds to support the faculty, the paper labs, and the students. Research focuses on paper physics, specifically the structure and response of tissue products and the performance of packaging.

North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

Department of Forest Biomaterials

The NC State Pulp and Paper Foundation

With roots dating to 1929, NCSU’s Department of Forest Biomaterials offers both undergraduate and graduate academic programs. The department conducts interdisciplinary research to uncover fundamental science and create an understanding of sustainable biomaterials, improves existing engineering and technological processes, and creates innovation in paper science and engineering, sustainable biomaterials and bioenergy. The NC State Pulp and Paper Foundation partners with alumni, corporations, friends, and foundations to generate support for the continued success of the NCSU Paper Science and Engineering Program in the Department of Forest Biomaterials.

State University of New York, Syracuse, NY

College of Environmental Science
and Forestry

Syracuse Pulp and Paper Foundation

The SUNY-ESF Paper and Bioprocess Engineering Department maintains a strong research program through support from external research grants and individual company funding. The research interests of faculty members include not only the traditional areas of pulp and paper research, but over the past decade have expanded into bioprocess engineering areas such as biofuel production and biodegradable plastics.

A few of the department’s key research projects include: water treatment and remediation using a bioreactor, developing a sustainable bioenergy system: Paulownia production for fuel, technology enhancement of hot water extraction, utilization of wood extracts and aspen wood pulps, and exploring assessment of 3D nanostructure and topochemical distributions of lignocellulosic biomass.

University of Maine, Orono, ME

School of Forest Resources

The University of Maine Pulp and
Paper Foundation

For 66 years, the University of Maine Pulp and Paper Foundation has been a model of successful partnership between academia and industry. The UMPPF awards full and partial tuition scholarships to more than 91 UMaine engineering students. In addition to about US$600,000 annually in scholarships, the UMPPF also contributes nearly US$200,000 to UMaine in the form of student programming, recruiting support, graduate student stipends, and faculty research support in pulp and paper, as well as the facilitation of the Consider Engineering program for high school juniors.

Within UMaine’s School of Forest Resources, research facilities include the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests and the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, an interdisciplinary research initiative that seeks to create the building blocks of a “bioeconomy” in Maine and around the world.

University of Minnesota,
St. Paul, MN

Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

The Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering has historically directed significant effort toward pulp and paper and forest products research. Over the past 10 years—with decreased funding from industry and funding agencies for research related to pulp and paper and forest products—more faculty have directed their efforts toward future opportunities in integrated biorefining, including bio-based materials, chemicals, and energy from lignocellulosic biomass.

Recent/ongoing research efforts include: development of additives to improve kraft pulping, replacement of silicates in pulp bleaching, 3D structure of paper and board and its relationship to properties and performance during manufacturing and end-use applications, 3D structure of biomass at micro and nanoscale and its role in biomass conversion, biocomposites using nanocrystalline cellulose, lignin-based plastics, and process modeling and simulation of pulp and paper-based forest biorefineries.

University of Washington, Seattle, WA

School of Environmental and
Forest Sciences

Washington Pulp and Paper Foundation

In addition to the investigation of new paper products from unique raw materials, research at UW is ongoing in the production of chemicals and fuels from bioresources using biological, chemical, and thermal pathways. New research also involves the production of unique carbon structures, such as carbon nanotubes, from sustainable bioresources.

The Washington Pulp and Paper Foundation has supported the Bioresource Science and Engineering program with direct student scholarships, endowed funding for faculty positions, and establishing and supporting a comprehensive paper and bioresource pilot lab. Foundation members also provide mentoring for students, paid internships, and a path to full-time employment: more than 80 percent of graduates will go to work for one the foundation’s nearly 50 members.

University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, WI

Department of Paper Science
and Engineering

UWSP Paper Science Foundation

The UWSP Paper Science and Engineering Department has the resources to tackle many industrial research problems, especially in collaboration with the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST). The school’s process engineering laboratory also boasts the world’s fastest student-run paper machine.

Research areas pursued at UWSP PSE include paper formation, paper coating and converting, paper deinking evaluations, and nanocellulose; UWSP’s Dr. Roland Gong is one of the few researchers attempting to produce nanocellulose thin film on a pilot scale. The department also has ongoing projects in biofuels production, including work led by Dr. Malek Alkasrawi studying conversion of paper mill sludge into biofuels and management of wastewater generated during the pulp production.

Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI

College of Engineering and
Applied Sciences

WMU Paper Technology Foundation

At WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, four working pilot plants form the heart of the Paper Engineering program: a recycling pilot plant; a 24-in (610 mm) wide Fourdrinier paper machine; a pilot coater; and a printing pilot plant. WMU pilot plants have more than 50 years of collaborative history with the paper and allied industries. In addition, the pilot plants work with adjacent industry and customers of the industry.

Most of WMU’s pilot plant projects are done under non-disclosure agreements, so specific project information is not available; however, examples include collaborative work with Global Green Coalition for Resource Recovery, and evaluating repulpability and recyclability of a blend of post-consumer quick-service paper packaging material with specified fiber grades.

Jon Kerr has recently retired from his position as executive director of the Pulp and Paper Foundation at Miami University. Jan Bottiglieri is editorial director of Paper360°; reach her at [email protected].

Innovation: The Long View

Innovation is a long-term investment. That’s the unanimous response from research faculty leaders when Paper360° posed this question: How can the industry as a whole foster research innovation?

Dr. Gary M. Scott, SUNY: “By understanding the multifaceted mission and long-term mission of the university. We are not solely focused on immediate research results; we also provide engineering and management training for future researchers and leaders in the industry. An investment in the training of Ph.D. students today is a long-term investment: their training now may lead to major discoveries later in their careers.”

Dr. Stephen Kelley, NCSU: “The answer may be predicated on a university-industry liaison that goes beyond a traditional directed funding paradigm. Research innovation needs degrees of freedom (e.g., a long event horizon) that go beyond short-term demands of industry. Finally, strong relationships must be cultivated that allow for true collaboration by regular meetings and close partnerships.”

Dr. Shri Ramaswamy, University of Minnesota: “By taking a longer-term approach to research and funding longer-term research projects and graduate thesis research. While this has decreased in the US, it is our understanding that in Europe both industry and government have continued to invest in such research efforts. With decreased long-term funding for research and graduate students, it has become more difficult to explore unproven areas and gather the necessary preliminary data in new, high-risk areas.”

Chris Luettgen, associate director, pulp and paper, RBI: “It is urgent to maintain the technical and technological expertise the industry needs to realize its opportunities. This strategic priority cannot be fulfilled without private philanthropy. Companies can endow a professorship of the practice in a Core Technology Area, in order to attract talented industry technologists. (We need) more interaction and two-way-conversation with faculty or leadership at research institutions to influence the direction of the work.”

Mike Roberts, executive director, Washington Pulp and Paper Foundation: “Research, especially that which is more fundamental in nature, follows funding. If industry-wide consortiums such as Agenda 2020 and AF&PA can define research questions and then fund research on a competitive basis, paper and bioresource programs will respond to a request for proposals. Individual companies that may have reduced their internal research and technical support capabilities can look to paper and bioresource programs to build relationships that support investigation into company-specific questions. A long-term technical relationship benefits both the company, through access to technical talent, and the academic program, through understanding the relevance of the industrial marketplace.”

Student Chapters Foster Connections

To support academic programs, TAPPI and its local sections sponsor more than 30 student chapters on university campuses around the world. The chapters give students an opportunity to meet their peers, interact with future employers and industry veterans, tour facilities, and contribute to technical programs. Each student chapter offers its own array of activities and programs. Here are a few examples:

At Auburn, student chapter activities are focused on outreach. This year, Auburn students spent a week at a local elementary school engaging in paper related activities with 4th and 5th graders (paper-making and paper-testing, respectively); in 2017 they hope to include 3rd graders in the mix.

In May 2015, a group of UMaine TAPPI/PIMA student chapter members spent two weeks visiting papermaking and supplier facilities in Germany and Austria. UMaine students visited Finland in May 2013, and are planning a trip to Sweden in May 2017. The trips expose students to the world and keep them informed about new technologies.

Miami University has more than 100 students active in TAPPI student chapter activities, which include mill or plant tours, guest speakers, team building exercises, and social activities. The chapter’s service projects include the annual Girl Scout Day, when Scouts visit the department to see the pilot paper machine run and make their own handsheets.

The University of Washington student TAPPI chapter—with the participation of the pilot lab manager and the Washington Pulp and Paper Foundation—has instituted a new program called “papermaking Friday.” On most Fridays throughout the academic year, students gather and run the pilot paper machine to explore manufacture of unique papers from new blends of atypical fibers.

TAPPI also sponsors an annual Student Summit that provides a technical program, a poster session, an Engineering Competition and networking opportunities. It also offers students the opportunity to gain valuable information about employment and career development within their field. The next TAPPI Student Summit will be held January 14, 2017, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

For Student Summit program updates and a complete list of active TAPPI Student Chapters, visit www.tappi.org or contact Tanya Hickson at [email protected]rg.

Jon Kerr, recently retired from his post as executive director of the Paper Science and Engineering Foundation at Miami University, demonstrates the school’s pilot paper machine for Valerie Hodge, wife of recently retired university president David Hodge.

Teams of students discuss the Engineering Challenge at the 2016 TAPPI Student Summit.

The Engineering Challenge at the 2016 TAPPI Student Summit.

NCSU students Trevor Gamache and Heather Starkey at the 2016 TAPPI Student Summit.