What’s up with Minnesota’s forest-related industries? Just that. Things are looking up thanks to a projected upswing in the U.S. housing market which is recovering from the 2008 recession. In particular, NRRI Research Scientist Matt Aro is watching the trends for engineered wood products — plywood, oriented strandboard and the like. And his specific focus is to make these regional products even better.
Aro and his NRRI colleagues received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to advance the science and understanding of thermal modification techniques and test how it might improve engineered wood products. Thermal modification is a familiar process in Europe, mostly in the solid wood markets. Using a special kiln to cook the wood at specific temperatures, pressures, and lengths of time can make a basswood two-by-four behave like cedar — the wood becomes much more moisture resistant, dimensionally stable and durable. And it does this without chemicals, so it reduces environmental impacts while being a renewable, sustainable and carbon-sequestering material.
"We’re testing and producing value-added plywood that could outperform what people are using now," said Aro. "Theoretically, a manufacturer would then get a premium price because thermally-modified plywood would offer greater durability and, thus, have a longer service life." Manufacturers could sell modified plywood as a subfloor product, for example, with less edge swell, and less overall movement.
Aro’s research in the Market-Oriented Wood Technology Program at NRRI focuses on forest products because they are a cornerstone of Minnesota’s economy. A 2011 University of Minnesota Duluth report shows that the state’s forest-related businesses annually contribute $17.1 billion to the state’s economy and provide almost 87,000 jobs. This kiln technology, once fully vetted, could help create new companies to produce the product, creating new regional and national jobs and increased opportunities for exports.
This past summer marked the 30th anniversary of an organization unique to Minnesota that’s helped hundreds of small and midsize businesses. Founded in 1983 — in the midst of a recession — the Natural Resources Research Institute’s (NRRI) mission is to foster the economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.
Brook trout are a popular game fish and an icon of Northern Minnesota — Lake Superior’s North Shore streams once teemed with them. But it’s also a sensitive fish; one that needs cool, clean water to thrive. If this region experiences warming temperatures due to climate change, how will that affect brook trout? NRRI researched an answer with the St. Anthony Falls Lab at the University of Minnesota and funding from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
There’s a warehouse space in Two Harbors that is quite literally full of potential. It is filled with machinery and super-sacks of product that is garnering enthusiastic interest from personal care industries. This start-up company is called The Actives Factory and the next steps are to get the machinery running and the product out the door to potential markets. Brian Garhofer, president/salesman/bookkeeper, is gearing up to do just that this spring.
"I have a load of Aspen timber. Can NRRI help me increase its value?"
Yes! Our Thermal Modification Kiln is up and running. We are testing all species of Minnesota’s plentiful wood supplies to make them more durable, weather-resistant and dimensionally stable — that means your aspen has more marketability and more value.
Thermal modification is a technique well vetted over the past decade in Europe. It basically "cooks" wood at high temperatures in a zero oxygen chamber enhancing the wood’s physical properties. With our pilot-scale kiln, we can test the physical properties of plentiful Minnesota wood resources — aspen, birch, ash and tamarack — so they can be used in applications like decking and siding.