Stories in this Issue
Bred for biomass
Large lakes, large problems
Tech transfer hits the road
A NRRI retrospective
Window of opportunity
NRRI delivers innovation
Plant domestication is an ancient human practice and specific plant breeding took off in the 1930s. Today, many of the plants we are most familiar with — and pretty much all of the plants we rely on for food — are the result of many decades of plant breeding.
NRRI’s forestry program has been breeding fastgrowing trees for some 20 years, primarily to feed the pulp needs of regional paper mills. With the largest collection in the United States of Populus nigra, a fastgrowing European species of poplar tree, NRRI can grow harvest-sized trees for pulp mills in about eight years. And now, those highly productive trees can fill an important energy need as the U.S. seeks sustainable sources of alternative fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol.
Bill Berguson and his NRRI forestry team received funding from the Department of Energy’s Sun Grant program to lead the research on hybrid poplars as an ethanol energy crop. It’s part of a national effort to expand the role of biomass to increase energy independence with new biorefinery industries and sustainable new crops.
A study undertaken in 2005 by the Departments of Energy and Agriculture concluded that, with the current supply of forest and agricultural land, the United States should be able to produce nearly one billion dry tons of biomass annually — enough to meet more than one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels. ("Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply." Oak Ridge National Laboratory, April 2005)
NRRI’s Populus nigra, bred with native trees across the country, could potentially supply about half of the agricultural resources needed for energy [See Figure 1], and also provide a new crop for farmers — even those with marginally productive farmland.
"The reason there’s strong interest in poplars is because the species is very diverse and its geographic range covers from Saskatchewan in Canada down to the southeast of the U.S.," said Berguson. "We’re getting the genetic resources together, and finding areas across the country with studies of native cottonwood that would work for our breeding program."
The key to making cellulosic ethanol profitable is rising liquid fuel prices. Berguson calculates that biomassproduced fuel is economically competitive with gasoline when it costs above $3 a gallon at the pumps.
"The resource supply for oil is not great relative to demand, so I think it’s inevitable that oil prices will keep going up," said Berguson. "And if cellulosic ethanol can replace just 20 percent of what Americans consume for vehicles alone, transferred across the country, that’s a huge amount of ethanol."
NRRI’s tree breeding program began in the early 1980s, funded primarily by the Department of Energy in response to the 1970s energy crisis. Berguson and his crew collected hybrid poplars from all over Europe, planting trials for Minnesota heartiness, and propagating for the fastest growing, healthiest trees. When aspen prices started going up in the mid-1980s, paper mills started to pay attention. One mill in Sartell, Minn., (previously Champion International, now Verso Paper) was very interested in a new fiber source because its wood source was far from the mill. They became an industry research partner.
"Verso Paper provides us with 2,000 acres a year and we plant 20 to 30 acres of trials every year," said Berguson. "So we have, in the ground, probably 200 to 300 acres worth of research, which is as large as any experiment station in the university system."
With an established and successful northern climate breeding program, the Sun Grant Initiative now wants Berguson’s team to take more of a national perspective. He is charged with coordinating researchers from Mississippi State University, Greenwood Resources in Oregon, and ArborGen in South Carolina, to construct a breeding and field program for the entire United States.
"Ultimately, we want to provide a ‘basket’ of climatically adapted, fast-growing trees that work anywhere in the country," Berguson explained. "So if a farmer has the land and energy prices are high, and with an ethanol plant within a 50 mile radius, we can provide that farmer with the research on what species of hybrid will work best for that region."
NRRI’s Populus Nigra is vital to developing this genetically new crop of energy-focused trees.
"It’s almost like where corn was in the 1930s when researchers started serious breeding programs with maize to get the productive stalks we have today," Berguson added. "This is the beginning of a nationally oriented breeding program of agricultural biomass. I think it will be very important."
For someone like Len Frame, NRRI’s innovative research on new ideas is a great fit.
"I’m a start-up person," said Frame. "I like to take a business concept and turn it into reality."
His latest start-up combines taconite waste rock with an ultra hot plasma furnace to make one-of-a-kind artistic pieces. He’s calling the material PlazmaStone. Designers are calling it beautiful.
The partnership with Len Frame’s Phoenix Solutions Co. business and NRRI started with the idea that taconite rock could be melted and made into tiles that would have beneficial heat absorption properties.
"We installed Phoenix Solutions’ plasma furnace here and wanted to see if we could melt rock and make a value-added product with taconite waste," explained NRRI researcher Kyle Bartholomew.
Frame and his company advisors explained that tiles are a highly commoditized product — they have to be made in large quantities and are very low-priced. This wouldn’t work well for the taconite tiles.
"But as the material is solidifying in the mold, there are changes in viscosity and temperature... and we get a variety of very unusual colors, unusual surface effects that combine into something very attractive," Frame said.
They were told that one piece made at NRRI’s Coleraine Lab could be worth as much as $2,500.
"It was kind of warped and twisted. I thought it didn’t turn out well but now they’re going to frame it and hang it on a wall." said Bartholomew with a smile.
Frame is using NRRI as an incubator to launch his new business"Accent Elegance." He showcased the PlazmaStone pieces at the Midwest Home Show last November. People responded with interest to the "home grown" material, according to company Co-Owner Susan Frame. She’s introducing unique accent tables for indoor or outdoor use, and will showcase PlazmaStone pieces at more upcoming art events.
"NRRI is a great organization for people and companies to work with," said Frame. "We’re growing this business with the support of NRRI, but in a year or so we’ll take it to the private sector."
A $50,000 grant from the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment through the University of Minnesota is allowing Bartholomew to continue research on the heat and microwave absorption ability of the melted rock for other purposes.
"We’re proposing tiles that could be put on a wall for passive solar heat or perhaps they can be used for defense purposes," said Bartholomew. "We’re working to find the right recipe to make it the most energy absorbing with the right viscosity to get it out of the furnace into the mold."
Len Frame started the company in 1952 which grew to be the largest supplier of plasma technology in the world. One of its main businesses is providing plasma torches to Japan to reduce their municipal waste by melting the ash after the waste is incinerated. Japan incinerates about 75 percent of their waste. The United States incinerates about 25 percent.
Lake Victoria in eastern central Africa is a long way from Lake Superior and Duluth, Minnesota. But similarities in the problems facing both lakes brought NRRI scientists to Uganda in September to offer solutions.
The two lakes are the largest in the world and both have multiple political borders that make sharing research data cumbersome. Lake Victoria is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and is the economic, social and ecological lifeblood of the communities near the lake as a major source of protein to over 22 million people. Its health and productivity as a fishery is vital.
Here’s some background:
In the 1950s Nile perch and Nile tilapia were introduced to the lake and became established during a period when the lake was being increasingly fertilized by agricultural runoff from a rapidly growing human population. By the 1990s it had become the largest freshwater fishery in the world, a major source of protein to East Africa, a major export commodity, and a major source of income in the region. Most of the Nile perch harvest is shipped to Europe, in part to replace cod which were overharvested until near collapse. Ironically, Lake Victoria’s perch fishery has also declined in the past decade or so, but not before hundreds of native fish species were decimated to near extinction.
As is often the case when large lakes undergo dramatic fishery changes, Lake Victoria experienced numerous other changes including higher lake levels, increased sediment and sewage, climate changes, as well as introductions of invasive fish and plants. The three countries are extremely concerned. Each has been conducting and coordinating their extensive research, monitoring and data collection on the lake but making the data available and useable has been a challenge.
"It’s a common management problem," explained NRRI Aquatic Scientist Rich Axler, one of five local researchers who went to Uganda. "Similarly, we have Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and a province, Ontario, all bordering Lake Superior collecting fisheries data and water quality data, all somewhat differently. Lake Victoria involves three different countries and different fisheries agencies within each country. Who is putting all of the data together to answer what is going on with the lake as a whole?"
Funding from the University of Minnesota’s Office of International Programs, co-sponsored by the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, allowed the water and data management researchers from NRRI and UMD’s Large Lakes Observatory to organize a workshop for the Lake Victoria fisheries managers and technical personnel in September 2010. Their goal was to lend advice and assistance in managing the burgeoning amount of data so it can be rapidly integrated and visualized to help address the lake’s problems.
NRRI’s expertise in data visualization began over 10 years ago with WaterOnTheWeb.org which integrated a variety of water quality and weather data in different kinds of lakes and streams. It helps people understand how the water systems "work" and allows people to access and interact with the data. NRRI’s LakeSuperiorStreams.org website has made the tools even more sophisticated. The scientists came back to the U.S. with nearly 10 years of data that they will organize for on-line, interactive display and analysis, and then present the information in a second training workshop on the shores of Lake Victoria in 2012.
"Being able to see their data in a meaningful way is going to be really beneficial to them as they try to address the problems in this lake," said NRRI Computational Biologist George Host, who also made the journey. "On the other hand, we can learn a lot from them. The African community has made great inroads in adapting cell phone text messaging for information sharing and commerce, ideas that are years away in the U.S. It’s very synergistic."
UMD Large Lakes Observatory and biology professor Robert Hecky (overall project leader), Research Scientist Norine Dobiesz, and Minnesota Sea Grant Extension Educator Cynthia Hagley, along with John Dettmers from the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, made up the rest of the U.S. team. NRRI’s Norm Will and Terry Brown are developing the data tools for the project. The workshops are an extension of the University’s Institute on the Environment Discovery Grant Project, "The Global Great Lakes: Integrating Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Transforming Environmental Data into Anticipatory Ecosystem Management."
The mission of the Natural Resources Research Institute is to foster the economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.
It’s long been said that folks in the rest of the state are sketchy on just how important northern Minnesota is to the state’s economy. Exactly what goes on up there amid the tall pines, clear lakes and wild blueberry bogs?
The answer, since the turn of the 20th century, has been iron ore mining. So when an economic recession took hold in the early 1980s and steel production in the U.S. was grinding to a halt, demand for ore plummeted and the Iron Range lost around 10,000 jobs. Minnesota’s wood products industries, too — especially logging and pulp and paper — were suffering under the weak economy. The region’s unemployment rate rose to around 25 percent.
Like today, legislators and other leaders were targeting job creation as the key to reverse the trend.
Fortunately, two very influential men had a great love of northern Minnesota — newly-elected Governor Rudy Perpich of Hibbing and 8th District Circuit Court Judge Gerald Heaney who lived most of his adult life in Duluth. It’s Perpich and Heaney who are most often credited with the vision and the establishment of NRRI.
"When Perpich was elected governor, he said ‘We have to have an applied research center up there’," recalled Jack DeLuca, an Iron Range businessman who Perpich paired with Judge Heaney to get things rolling. "He knew that basic research being done at the University of Minnesota takes a long time before it reaches commercialization. But applied research could get us producing jobs quicker."
A great example of applied research from the University was the development of taconite pellets beginning in 1914 and culminating with the first successful commercial operation in the 1950s. With the Iron Range’s high grade ores depleted, the pellet technology saved the mining communities. Perpich and Heaney wanted the University to do more of that type of research — but north where the minerals and forests are.
There was talk of moving the University’s School of Forestry and the Minerals Resources Research Center from the Twin Cities campus to Duluth, but in the end, NRRI was given a specifically different mission than theory-oriented basic research — to focus instead on the technologies derived from basic research to help industry.
"Basic research has an important role to play, but we had to get on the ground and push for jobs," said Al France, then president of the Lake Superior Mining Bureau. "Economic development is jobs, and when you measure what NRRI does, that’s it."
So while the idea behind the organization of NRRI was straight-forward, it required a political "togetherness" that’s hard to find these days. DeLuca believes having Iron Ranger Perpich as governor played an important role in bringing disparate groups together.
"We worked very hard to bring people together," DeLuca said. "Al France brought the taconite industries to the table, and we brought the political side, so there was a better overall understanding of what was happening on the Range."
Perpich formed a Minerals Development Commission with representatives from the union, paper industry, legislature, University, energy company and, of course, mining.
Don Harriss was UMD Vice Chancellor at the time and part of the Commission.
"Inside the University, [Chancellor] Bob Keller was able to get people to agree... but outside the University Judge Heaney was the driver. He was influential and you really, truly believed in his vision," said Harriss.
UMD Economics Professor Jerrold Peterson had consulted with Governor Perpich and testified before legislators in support of research on natural resources as a driver for economic development. Peterson was later named Interim Director of NRRI. He was succeeded by Mike Lalich who hired division directors Thys Johnson (Minerals), Gene Shull (Energy), Bob Naiman (Water), and Roy Adams (BioProducts).
As a completely unique institute formed to specifically address the economic drivers of Minnesota, there was no single model to follow. But it was the "environmentally sound manner" part of the mission that generated the loudest discussions. Harriss explained that in the early years some didn’t want to focus on environmental problems. "We have to get people working!" was the battle cry at early NRRI board meetings.
"The original directors of NRRI really held to the mission. We fought like hell to do what we promised to the state legislature," said Harriss.
Perpich believed the dichotomous mission would benefit Minnesota in the long run. "We realized that if you’re building jobs with natural resources, you have to be concerned about the environment," said DeLuca.
"As you read the NRRI mission, it has the seeds of conflict right in it. We recognized that," said France. "But it’s still as relevant now as it was then and I don’t think we should change it."
NRRI is well-known in mining industry circles — not so much in the arts community. But when artist Joan Henrik needed native Minnesota minerals to work into her "Winds and Currents" floor design at the new Duluth Entertainment Convention Center arena, she used NRRI connections. "I was looking for minerals that would have a visual impact and a story to tell," said Henrik.
"[NRRI Director] Mike Lalich put me in touch with several distributors of minerals mined in search of ore."
The terrazzo floor is made completely of recycled materials — glass and domestic marble — inlaid with images of iconic Minnesota animals, plants and fish. Hendrik also incorporated four examples of native rock deposited some 1.85 billion years ago: Animikian, Mary Ellen Stromatolite, Erie Banded Taconite, and Red Jasper.
"I think this is a great opportunity to get our minerals heritage in front of the general public with examples of interesting and attractive mineral specimens," said Lalich.
"I happen to love rocks and I love the ancient story behind each one," said Hendrik. "You can see the banding of the formation on the top of the stone where the amoebas came through the slime when it was formed."
NRRI Scientist Jonathan Lee is president of the Duluth Public Arts Commission and saw the DECC project through from artist selection to gallery opening.
"NRRI’s resources and capabilities with ironworking and rapid prototyping are something that the Arts Commission has really looked into for the current project," said Lee. "I think the cooperation between these disparate groups is a quality that should make Duluthians proud."
The National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association thinks it’s pretty special, too. In February, they awarded Henrik’s installation with the 2011 Honor Award — a pretty big deal in the terrazzo world.
NRRI forest products scientists are focused on one thing: helping the regional wood products industry be competitive and successful. Researchers Pat Donahue and Matt Aro have a couple winning ideas on the burner — quite literally — for the fenestration industry.
Donahue’s project is focused on laying the foundation for a thermally-modified wood industry — basically "cooking" wood at high temperatures to make it more stable and durable. This treatment makes any wood — aspen, red pine, birch — useable for window and door manufacturing. A grant from the USDA Forest Service’s Wood Education Resource Center is funding research on the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of the thermally-modified wood.
"This is my opportunity to replace out-of-state species with in-state species," said Pat Donahue, director of NRRI’s Market Oriented Wood Technology program. "Minnesota’s red pine does not work for the fenestration industry. It has too much pitch. But this process eliminates the pitch and makes the wood decay resistant."
Donahue and his team think the thermally-modified wood technology — used for decades in Finland — can offer window and door manufacturers new sources of local wood supply.
Finnish saunas are often made of thermally modified aspen. Extensive research in Finland by VTT Technical Research Centre and the Institute of Environmental Technology resulted in an industrial scale heat-treatment process called Thermowood. NRRI is helping two regional businesses get started with this technology. Wolf Wood, Inc. in Spooner, Wisc., is going to treat the wood and make door and window components. Superior ThermoWood in Palisade, Minn., is going to make thermally-modified lumber for a variety of uses.
"I think thermally-modified wood will add to the regional economy more than anything I’ve done at NRRI," said Donahue. "And there’s a lot of potential in ash because of the wood available from the Emerald Ash Borer infestation."
Donahue is also working with Dr. Mathew Leitch, a wood products professor at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, to develop a North American Thermally- Modified Wood Standard Protocol. The two researchers are seeking funding from both countries.
"Right now there are a number of different manufacturers who make the ovens, with a number of different processes and ‘recipes’ for using the wood for different purposes," Donahue explained. "It’s not well-documented what that means to the manufacturer or its end use."
Aro’s project is focused on using two readily available industrial waste resources to make fireresistant door cores, stiles and rails. Starting in 2004, Aro focused on finding a large-scale, practical application for paper mill waste residue that would fill a real need. Today, he has a concept ready for commercial partnership to move the idea from bench-scale testing to pilot-scale and eventually commercialization.
The residue is mixed with fly ash, a by-product of coal-burning power plants, held together with a magnesium-based, inorganic binder that produces a very stable, chemical bond that’s very rigid and solid. The composite material has been fire-tested and found to work very well. At this point, Aro needs to find a company partner so that the recycled materials can be manufactured to door industry standards. He thinks there is potential for a door component business to set up shop near a paper mill and be a cost-effective, green product supplier to the door industry.
Door companies that are near paper mills would have an obvious advantage — close access to the residue. Depending on the size of the mill, they can produce as much as 150 tons of waste per day and they have to pay to get rid of it — usually in landfills. Finding an effective use for the residue is in everyone’s best interest. Fly ash is also an abundant resource. NRRI is working in partnership with the Wisconsin Business Innovation Corporation on this research, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We believe this can be cost-effective and, of course, could be marketed as a ‘green’ product," said Aro. "It wouldn’t take a lot of capital expenditure to get started — some mixers, molds and an oven. We just need someone from the industry to help us target the product more specifically to their needs."
Both the fire door cores and the thermally modified wood projects help NRRI meet their mission to foster the economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.
On February 10, the Office for the Vice President for Research at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus celebrated the innovations of 161 university inventors representing 10 colleges who have earned 106 patents and 84 licenses. Seventeen of those were from NRRI.
"Faculty and staff at NRRI have been strong contributors to the University’s innovation agenda and are recognized for their solutions focused research efforts," said Tim Mulcahy, Vice President for Research. "They are a major force for the State of Minnesota. The University is proud of, and grateful for, their many achievements."
Among the highlights from the evening, Pavel Krastusky, NRRI program director and chemist, was recognized with his third University Innovations Award. Krasutsky holds 16 U.S. patents and 25 world patents, 10 of which were licensed to companies. NRRI Scientist Tom Levar was recognized for developing a plant protection system that has been licensed to Repellex USA with a product launch planned for this spring.
PATENTS: Method and Apparatus for Evaluation of Standing Timber — Xiping Wang; Linear Hearth Furnace System and Methods Regarding Same — David Englund, Richard Kiesel, Rodney Bleifuss; Method and System for Producing Metallic Iron Nuggets — Iwao Iwasaki, Richard Kiesel, Rodney Bleifuss, Andrew Lindgren, Michael Lalich, Robert Beaudin; Triterpene Quaternary Salts as Biologically Active Surfactants — Pavel Krasutsky, Oksana Kolomitsyna
LICENSES: Refinement of Road Repair, Expansion to Rural Road Situations and Mix Processing Technologies — Lawrence Zanko, Tamara Diedrich, David Hendrickson, Don Fosnacht, Richard Kiesel; Systemic Plant Conditioning Composition — Thomas Levar
Michael Lalich, director
Center for Water and the Environment, Lucinda Johnson, director
Center for Applied Research and Technology Development, Donald Fosnacht, director
Center for Economic Development, Elaine Hansen, director
June Kallestad, editor/writer
Trish Sodahl, graphic design
The Natural Resources Research Institute was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1983 to foster economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.