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History of Biomaterials

Our Roots: 1929

In 1929, NC State established a School of Forestry reflecting the importance of North Carolina’s forests and the wood products made possible to the state’s economy. That same year, the North Carolina Forestry Foundation was established with funds from both individuals and companies, in part to raise money for the acquisition of forest lands that would allow NC State students to gain experience in managing forests as a business practice. In the years ahead, these themes of hands-on instruction, a close partnership with industry and a determination to support North Carolina’s economy would drive the growth of forestry-related areas at NC State, including the formation of a Wood Products and Paper and Pulp Department that is now one of the most respected Paper Science and Engineering programs in the United States.

A New Department: 1948

In 1948, a focus on extending expertise to the manufacturing realm was formalized when the Division of Forestry established its first wood utilization program, featuring a wood technology and lumber products merchandising curriculum. A year later, formal research programs and laboratory teaching methods were introduced to provide students with a way to combine their fundamental knowledge with practical skills, better preparing them to join the ranks of industry upon graduation and to enjoy success in their careers.

At the time, NC State’s student body included a large percentage of WWII veterans seeking new career opportunities. Their response to the new program was enthusiastic and, within a year and a half, the program graduated 16 transfer students and added a pulp technology option to the curriculum. This new option, developed with the help of industry leaders, featured courses in both wood technology and chemical engineering. This program would eventually evolve into our now renowned Paper Science and Engineering curriculum.

The Expansion Decades

By 1950, Master’s and doctoral degrees in Wood Technology were available. In 1951, a special pulp and paper program, combining the expertise of the School of Forestry, Department of Chemical Engineering and Department of Chemistry, was announced. This initiative was the first undergraduate training program of its kind ever offered in the South. Equipment available to the original pulp technology program included a chipper, defiberizer, beater, sheet forming cylinders and a digester.

Meanwhile, a wood products laboratory was built and equipped through funding and donations of equipment by corporate sponsors to serve the needs of NC State programs involving solid wood products. More mill working equipment and furniture manufacturing machines were donated and a second wood products laboratory was created in the basement of Kilgore Hall to resemble the flow of materials in a factory. In addition to teaching, the lab was used for graduate level research and continuing education workshops, seminars and short hands-on courses contracted by companies.

Other facilities for both our wood science and paper science areas followed in rapid order, including the Hodges Wood Laboratory and the Robertson Laboratory of Pulp and Paper Technology, which opened in 1957 and firmly established NC State as a national leader in preparing graduates for jobs in related industries.

Maintaining An Innovative Curriculum

By the end of the 1950’s, courses covered lumber structure, mechanical properties of wood, forest valuation and administration, forest economics, milling, logging, forest production, naval stores, technical sales, fiber analysis, wood chemistry, organic chemistry, paper engineering, process engineering and more. By the time the 60’s dawned, training expanded to cover related technology and industry-specific business management practices.

In 1960, a fifth year program was debuted to allow students to complete a B.S. in Pulp and Paper Technology in four years and complete the requirements for a B.S. in Chemical Engineering during their fifth year, a program that continues today. In 1962, even more specialists in wood mechanics, wood physics and wood structure arrived as faculty members, many from industry ranks, established our long tradition of cross-pollination between NC State’s faculty and industry laboratories.

A Growing International Reputation

By the end of the 1960’s, NC State had obtained the largest collection of tropical wood in the U.S. and become a leader in study, research and instruction involving tropical woods and their uses. We added new courses in gluing, composites, wood chemistry, wood deterioration, business and financial management, and ranked first in the nation in the number of undergraduates and advanced degrees conferred in Wood Science and Technology. New faculty enriched the curriculum in paper additives and paper-coating, significantly expanding the chemistry area of the pulp and paper program and strengthening its biochemistry offerings.

The department also began expanding our reputation internationally, with a visiting scientist program and a special training program that attracted more international students. This began the department’s emphasis on international partnerships and offering student internships with global companies, especially those where the paper and pulp industries dominate such as Japan and China.

The Environmental Era

The 1970’s began with the opening of a new home for the Wood and Paper Science Department: Biltmore Hall, next to the Hodges Wood Product Laboratory and the Robertson Paper and Pulp Laboratory. Shortly thereafter, environmental sciences achieved widespread acceptance within the scientific and academic communities.

NC State became an early participant in bio-based alternatives research after the 1974 oil crisis cast light on the need for alternatives to petroleum products as America’s primary fuel source. In 1977, a $600,000 project was initiated with a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the possibility of converting wood and related materials into chemical sources, one of the first research projects of its kind.

In the 70’s an electron microscope was installed in Biltmore Hall to increase research on the cellular and atomic level, which would lead to NC State’s emergence as an international leader in biotechnology, including the genetic engineering of promising new fiber sources for the paper and pulp industry.

The 1980’s saw an increasing emphasis on environmental science and biotechnology in the wood, paper and pulp industries. Demand for NC State graduates exploded, and foundation support and endowed scholarships continued to grow, with 50 percent of all paper and pulp students receiving scholarships. By the mid-1980’s (and continuing today), NC State had the largest undergraduate wood, paper and pulp student enrollment in the United States.

Driven By Science

The department ushered in the 1990’s with an expansion of the Robertson Laboratory that allowed the department to enhance its teaching and research programs, including continuing education in paper and pulp. A two-week continuing education course in pulp and paper technology was taught for the first time in 1990, and is still offered today.

In 1999, as the wood products program continued to expand and support North Carolina’s wood-related industries, the paper science faculty significantly revised their undergraduate curricula, primarily in response to new priorities and needs in the industry. New courses improved critical thinking, communications, troubleshooting and research skills, while also emphasizing paper properties and new product development. A new, comprehensive course on wet end chemistry was added as research efforts increasingly reflected the realization that continuing paper and pulp industry competitiveness in a global market would depend on innovative and lower cost new products.

A New Century Dawns

By the dawn of the new millennium, the Department of Wood and Paper Science had changed significantly to reflect the new priorities in people’s lives. In 2000, a grant was approved for a 100 percent distance learning-based Master of Wood and Paper Science program, the first pulp and paper degree of its kind in the world, designed to serve the needs of professional scientists and engineers. By 2001, faculty research in paper recycling was recognized, and Procter and Gamble selected NC State to receive the largest suite of patents in recycling separation technology ever granted to a university. A significant cash grant was also donated to develop this technology.

The department has continued to lead as a premier teaching program and adopted an ever-increasing interdisciplinary approach to research. Linked by biotechnology, nanotechnology and other new sciences, the department’s wood science, and paper and pulp areas are exploring new options on fiber sourcing, new recycling methods, innovative uses for materials previously thought to be waste, and improvements in manufacturing and processing methods. Faculty and students are also examining the potential and practical uses of the forest biomass as renewable resources that could form the basis for many products of the future, including biofuels, bioenergy, bioplastics, chemicals, housing materials, composite components and more.

Looking Ahead

In recognition of new research initiatives, the Department of Wood and Paper Science was renamed the Department of Forest Biomaterials in 2010. In 2013 the Wood Products major was expanded to explicitly include classes in sustainability and renamed “Sustainable Materials and Technology.”

Our department is also leading the drive toward sustainable bioenergy and bioproducts. Between 2007 and 2014, more than 40 companies participated in an industrial consortium focused on creating new value-added sources for bioenergy and bioproducts. These companies included world-wide leaders in the pulp and paper, chemical, enzyme, and oil companies, and equipment engineering and technology suppliers.

These consortia and many government funded projects are built on a platform of fundamental science and technology innovation, including advanced process modeling, and additional financial and life cycle analysis. These projects also create exciting learning opportunities for graduate students to begin making the connections between fundamental science, engineering and real-world applications.

Today, our premier teaching programs take an interdisciplinary approach to research, linking biotechnology, nanotechnology and other new sciences with wood science and paper and pulp areas to explore new options in fiber sourcing, recycling methods, innovative uses for materials previously thought to be waste, and improvements in manufacturing and processing methods. Faculty and students examine the practical uses of forest biomass as renewable resources that could form the basis for many products of the future, including biofuels, bioenergy, bioplastics, chemicals, housing materials, composite components and more.