Wisconsin Lab is at Nexus of Innovation for U.S. Forest Service
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.
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.
“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 undergrowth also represents an appealing alternative to so-called prescribed fires, which are increasingly too costly or impractical for reducing the risks of destructive wildfires on public lands.
“On all national forests, we remove 200,000 to 250,000 acres of low-value, crummy wood each year,” Rains says. “It would be better if we could just get that up to 5 to 7 million acres a year.”
In this way, Rains says the lab is ideally suited to support the Forest Service’s primary mission, which is to keep forests “healthy, sustainable, and resilient” to disturbances that include insects, disease, and wildfires.
“I’m not a logger any more,” Rains says. “I don’t want to chop up big trees to make little things out of them. What I want to do get at this core issue of forests and disturbances.
“Forests and chaparral like you have in Southern California get stressed,” he explains, with the causes ranging from population growth and development to drought and climate change. “When they get stressed, they die. And when they die, they become prime candidates for infernos.”
Making better use of “low-value, crummy wood” serves as an example of how the Forest Service has evolved as a government agency. “When I first started with the Forest Service, we did a lot of clear-cutting,” Rains says. “We were in the lumber business, ‘producing lumber for a growing America.’”
These days, however, the emphasis at the lab has shifted to making better use of woody biomass, developing advanced composite materials, engineering advanced structures, and finding new ways to use trees to produce bio-based fuels and chemicals.
In recent years, the Forest Products Lab also has been emphasizing its research and development in wood products derived from nanotechnology. In 2012, the lab opened a $1.7 million pilot plant to support the commercialization of cellulose-based nanomaterials. Among other things, the plant produces cellulose nanocrystals—rod-like particles that are about 5 nanometers in diameter and 150 to 200 nanometers long—which can be stronger than Kevlar fiber and lighter than fiberglass or carbon fiber. (A human hair is roughly 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter, or 10,000 to 20,000 times thicker than cellulose nano-crystals.)
Concrete reinforced with wood-based nanomaterials is about 24 percent stronger and more flexible than conventional concrete, and requires fewer steel reinforcing bars, Rains says. Wood-based nanomaterials also can be used to make lightweight armor and windshields, clear composites, and “ballistic glass,” with potential applications in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, and medical device industries.
“If we can provide these products [i.e., wood-based nanomaterials] in a cost-efficient way, we’re hoping that some entrepreneurs will take the technology and run with it,” Rains said. “We don’t want the rights to it. We want to turn it over. We want to create some new industries.”