RBI: Transforming to Meet the Industry’s Research Needs

This resilient research organization, founded in 1929 between two World Wars and amid a stock market crash, has been serving the pulp and paper industry for nearly 90 years.

TEXT AND PHOTOS BY GLENN OSTLE

As executive director of the Renewable Bioproducts Institute (RBI) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Norman F. Marsolan, Ph.D., is proud of what his institute is accomplishing, from its impressive graduate program and industry connection to its broad scale of research. Yet he recognizes that RBI, like other research organizations in North America, faces some future challenges. “There’s an urgent need to sustain the capabilities of universities to support existing manufacturing technology platforms, while also enabling the industry’s potential opportunities in the emerging bioeconomy,” he says.

The Renewable Bioproducts Institute is the newest name of what began as the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, WI, in 1929, and what more recently was known as the Institute of Paper Science and Technology (IPST). In 2003, it merged with Atlanta-based Georgia Tech to become one of the university’s 12 interdisciplinary research institutes, gaining the ability to access the full capabilities and facilities of an internationally-recognized science and engineering university.

In 2014, the Institute received a US$43.6 million grant from the Institute of Paper Chemistry Foundation, which helps support about 40 paper science and engineering (PSE) students. That same year it was renamed the Renewable Bioproducts Institute to “leverage the advantage of using biomaterials to create bioproducts and bioprocesses within the paper and forest industries.”

Marsolan concedes that the name change may initially have caused some concern among papermakers that the institute was moving away from strictly paper-related projects, but responds that the change was actually suggested by industry committees that came to RBI to conduct performance reviews.

We continue to be very paper-focused, but we also need to consider where the industry will be in the future,” says Marsolan. “We view the forest as not just a ‘factory for fiber,’ but also for the generation of molecules that can be converted into new products. Our new name provides an opportunity to bring other industries to the table and, in doing so, broaden our appeal. As one paper company executive said to me, ‘It is not so much what you call yourself as what you do.’ We are the only graduate research institute founded and funded by the industry, for the industry.”

A generous endowment supports RBI students drawn from four schools, which provides them with an interdisciplinary opportunity. The institute also offers specialized laboratory analyses with industry-specific expertise and equipment, and is structured within a world-class research university with a full breadth of science and engineering capability and every support function and facility needed to see a project through to commercialization.

CHOOSING RESEARCH PROJECTS

The RBI process for selecting research projects is well defined. It begins with the executive director sending a request for proposals (RFP) annually to Georgia Tech faculty members from academic departments, including chemical and biomolecular engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and others. The RFP is based on Georgia Tech’s perception of opportunities as well as input from RBI member companies; government agencies; industry associations such as the American Forest & Paper Association, TAPPI, and Agenda 2020; and other key constituencies and sources.

Proposals are typically due in early spring and project selections and grants are announced in May. The faculty then recruits students to conduct the research, most often over a four-year period (Ph.D. candidates) and sometimes for a two-year period (master’s degree candidates).

Agenda 2020 is the most valuable program representing the research priorities of the pulp and paper industry,” claims Marsolan (see related article on page 14). “It helps us identify priorities for our immediate future, and we communicate its findings among the Georgia Tech faculty. This influences the RFP for endowed fellowships and also the broader Georgia Tech R&D agenda. In addition, we are about to put together a series of small seed grants to faculty, sponsored by member companies, to directly address proposals suggested by Agenda 2020.”

Recently, RBI has improved its process for engaging member companies in endowment fellowships, 10 of which are awarded each year. “Our goal is to translate industry problems and find the right resources on campus that have the skill sets to address them,” says Marsolan. The program produces about eight to 10 Ph.D. graduates per year, about half of whom go into pulp and paper manufacturer or supplier companies, and the rest to federal laboratories, the petrochemical industries, or academia.

MAJOR PROJECTS

Today, research projects at RBI are much broader than in the past, due to the expansion of the scope of bio-research. Projects fit into three strategic areas: operational excellence in pulp, paper, and packaging (manufacturing and products); biomaterials and nanocellulose; and biochemicals and biofuels.

Not every project is paper-related, but all are forest-related,” says Marsolan. “This includes conversion of biomaterials into value-added products, such as paper used as medium for printed electronics, enhanced dissolving pulp, and biofuels. We are creating new biomaterials, and nanocellulose plays a big part. We’re looking for ways to make bio-based materials that are more friendly to the environment.

We essentially take a tree apart to make new chemicals, biochemicals, substitutes for petroleum-based products, and new chemistries with attributes for the future,” he adds. “Look out 10 years and you’ll see that the paper market is going to be a little different—less communication paper, more packaging and tissue. But we will also see more forest biomaterial being used for other value-added products.”

Currently, RBI has 43 endowed graduate research projects in the works as well as industry-sponsored research consortia into black liquor concentration using membrane technology (sponsored by five member companies) and a water re-use project (supported by three member companies). Marsolan also points to RBI’s capability to use biopolymers for 3D printing of objects including human hearts, ears, and other body parts.

COMMUNICATING RESULTS

The results of RBI’s research projects are distributed in various ways. Those funded by sponsors are often proprietary and not available for publication for years, while endowment- and consortium-sponsored work is distributed, with permission, directly by RBI through publications, conferences, or Georgia Tech’s SMARTech (smartech.gatech.edu), a fully discoverable repository of publications.

Publishing scholarly papers is extremely important to RBI faculty, as those pursuing tenure are heavily judged by the “impact factor” of the journals in which they publish; faculty members frequently publish in highly-regarded publications such as Nature and Science.

Marsolan cites with enthusiasm the technical conferences that RBI conducts using its own faculty, students, and invited speakers. “At our last conference we had 150 attendees, including one paper company participant who stated ‘This is all you could want in a conference.’” The 2017 conference will be held March 7-8 on the Georgia Tech campus.

THE NEED FOR PARTNERSHIPS

Pulp and paper research institutions and universities in North America are feeling the pinch as faculty, students, and funding are being drawn to industries and technologies perceived to be more exciting. As a result, many have lost capabilities in traditional pulp and paper areas. “As an example, Georgia Tech has more depth in nanocellulosic materials than in tissue,” says Marsolan. “The core pulp and paper technology capability for this vibrant and evolving industry must be sustained and grown. It is an opportunity that must be addressed by the institute and the industry.”

Marsolan says that a research university will choose to invest in areas where there is perceived to be a significant cash flow and future demand for graduates. “The decline in industry research investment, and in the recruiting of candidates with advanced degrees, has led to a regrettable decline in many traditional pulp and paper programs.”

No single research institute today has the complete breadth of technology competency to serve the industry, so Marsolan feels there is a need for partnerships among research institutions and industry. In the past, RBI has collaborated with such universities and institutes as KTH, Innventia, and Chalmers in Sweden and VTT in Finland. Part of the institute’s endowment also supports an exchange program between Georgia Tech and schools in Sweden.

RBI has also joined other institutes and schools on applications for federal grants. “There is a lot of interest in federal and industry funding to support a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), and one grant involves reducing energy consumption in the pulp and paper industry,” reports Marsolan. “There’s a broad network of pulp and paper universities collaborating for this funding.”

Regarding partnerships with the pulp and paper industry, despite the fact that RBI is a major player in research, it lists only 15 industry member companies. “We certainly would welcome more companies as members,” says Marsolan. “RBI is unique, our value propositions are compelling, the dues are reasonable, and members have an opportunity to help determine the direction of our research.”

LAYING THE FOUNDATION

According to Marsolan, all research institutes and universities need to be more aggressive about promoting the value they offer, and about getting pulp and paper companies and other industries to the table to engage in conversation about what the future might hold.

I salute companies that invest in building academic capability in core technology,” says Marsolan. “A year ago, International Paper announced a multimillion-dollar gift to Mississippi State to help sustain and develop competencies and academic programs. Another fine example is Dow Chemical’s investment of US$250 million in a number of universities to boost the number of traditional chemical engineering graduates for industry, in light of federal and private research funding for other specialties such as biomedical research.

Partnerships are essential to lay the foundation for R&D here and elsewhere,” says Marsolan. “Action on the part of the pulp and paper industry to invest in expertise, competency, and facilities will sustain these platforms for future generations. If we were to lose them, that loss would not be easily reversed.”

Glenn Ostle is editor emeritus of Paper360° magazine and can be reached at: [email protected]

Dr. Norman F. Marsolan, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Renewable Bioproducts Institute at Georgia Tech

Marsolan was appointed executive director of RBI in November 2009. He retired from International Paper in 2008 after serving as director of research and development as well as in leadership and management assignments in process control, technology and operations. For 12 years Marsolan was on the faculty at Louisiana Tech University (Ruston) serving as professor of chemical engineering and director of engineering research and graduate studies. He is a past chair of TAPPI and a TAPPI Fellow.

RBI Fellowship Awards align with Agenda 2020 priorities. Source: RBI.

Research affiliate Nikita Kevlich and Dr. Marsolan keep watch on a black liquor membrane experimental unit.

A variety of products 3D-printed using a biopolymer material.

Paper Tricentennial Building, home of RBI.