Wisconsin Lab is at Nexus of Innovation for U.S. Forest Service

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It takes an unusual person to get excited about the latest advances in such common building materials as medium-density fiberboard.

Yet Michael Rains’ runaway enthusiasm comes tumbling through—even on a long-distance phone call from his office, where Rains does double duty as director of the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in Newton, PA (responsible for field research in 20 states from Maine to Missouri), and the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI.

For one thing, it’s practically impossible to interrupt Rains as he talks in rapid-fire bursts about his love for the Forest Service, growing up in East Los Angeles, attending Humboldt State University, the cost of fighting wildfires across the U.S., and how the Wisconsin-based facility is the only Forest Service lab to specialize in new product R&D—working with startups throughout the United States to develop and commercialize new sustainable materials and technologies, including innovative nanomaterials.

For example, San Diego-based Noble Environmental Technologies began working with the lab in 2004 under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to develop a cost-efficient and “green” process for manufacturing high-grade structural panels from sustainable materials without using toxic adhesives. Together, they pioneered and patented new methods for using any fibrous cellulosic material (including recycled paper, cardboard, and agricultural fiber) to make an assortment of composite panels and forms.

Ecor,

Jim Torti

The company has been commercializing the technology, with the idea of establishing millworks near urban recycling centers. “We can reduce the footprint and use less energy, less transportation, less everything,” says Jim Torti, Noble’s chief operating officer.

Rains says he began working for the Forest Service near Placerville, CA, as a GS-2 “forestry technician” and didn’t plan to attend college. “My objective was to become a GS-7, and that was it,” he says. “Somewhere along the line, the Forest Service went from being a job to a career. I’m not sure why, but it became an exciting place for me.

Michael Rains

Michael Rains

“It’s been a love for the agency and a very entrepreneurial spirit that led me to the FPL,” Rains says, referring to the lab established in 1910 near the University of Wisconsin campus, at One Gifford Pinchot Drive. He has served as the lab’s acting director since early 2012, and became the official director five months ago.

Rains describes the lab as a one-of-a-kind resource at the intersection of many Forest Service goals.

At a time when the cost of fighting forest fires in the U.S. pencils out to roughly $1 million an hour, Rains says the lab has become crucial to developing new and sustainable ways to use scrubby, small-diameter trees to make structural wood products like plywood and medium-density fiberboard.

Mixing wood chips and adhesives to create products that are structurally strong represents both an alternative to logging old-growth forests and a way to clear the brushy forest undergrowth and chaparral that burns so intensely, Rains says. Harvesting this brushy … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • FS watcher

    Well, day late and a dollar short. USFS is a non-player. Nobody seriously thinks this is an outlet to move “crappy” wood. There are no producers, incentives, ability, etc. to do this in California or Arizona. USFS made sure of that two decades ago. Plus what industry in its right mind would use USFS lands as their source? Need wood? Gotta wait for the monkey-wrenching greenies in the agency to OK it. Clearly he needs to take a lesson in how forests are utilized and forest industry operates here. Our mills get chips from SA. We send our chips to Europe.