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Our Roots: 1929

In 1929, NC State established a School of Forestry reflecting the importance of North Carolina’s forests and the wood products they 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 all 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 wood and paper science 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 curriculum centered on wood technology and lumber products merchandising. A year later, formal research programs and laboratory teaching methods were introduced in order 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, not only had it graduated 16 transfer students, a pulp technology option had been added to the wood technology curriculum. This new option featured courses in both wood technology and chemical engineering, and a curriculum developed with help from industry leaders. The program would eventually evolve into our now renowned paper science and engineering curriculum.

The Expansion Decades

By 1950, Masters degrees and PhD’s in Wood Technology were available.  In 1951, a special pulp and paper program that combined the School of Forestry, Department of Chemical Engineering and Department of Chemistry was announced. Graduates studies had been available through these separate areas for several years, but 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 had been 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 for by companies.

Other facilities for both our wood science and paper science areas followed in rapid order, including the Hodges Wood Working Laboratory and the Robertson Laboratory of Pulp and Paper Technology, which opened in October of 1957 and firmly established NC State as a national leader in preparing graduates for jobs in related industries. The department’s industry ties grew even stronger in 1955 when the Paper and Pulp Foundation was established.  Over the next 55 years, the Foundation’s assets and membership would swell dramatically, keeping pace with steady growth in the department’s paper science program enrollment.

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 had expanded to covered related technology and industry-specific business management practices. In 1960, a fifth year program was inaugurated to allow students to obtain a B.S. degree in pulp and paper technology in four years, complete the requirements for a B.S. in chemistry engineering during a fifth year (a program that continues today).

In 1962, more science was added to the department’s curriculum and even more specialists in wood mechanics, wood physics and wood structure arrived as faculty members, many of them from among industry ranks, establishing what is now a 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. It had added new courses in gluing, composites, wood chemistry, wood deterioration, business, and financial management, and it 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 expanded the chemistry area of the pulp and paper program and strengthening its biochemistry offerings.

The department also began to expand its reputation internationally, with a visiting scientist program and a special training program in the pulp and paper area that attracted more international students. This started 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 and installed in Biltmore Hall. Research on the cellular and atomic level 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% 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 90’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 2-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 industrie, the paper science faculty significantly revised its undergraduate curriculum, 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% distance learning-based Master of Wood and Paper Science, 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 has 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 these research initiatives, the Department of Wood and Paper Science was renamed the Department of Forest Biomaterials in 2010.

And in 2013 the Wood Products degree was expanded to explicitly include class in sustainability, and renamed to Sustainable Materials and Technology.

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

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

Four prime examples include:

  • A series Wood to Ethanol Research Consortia (WERC) which were designed to evaluation technology needs and the financial and life cycle opportunities integrating or co-locating various bioethanol production process into pulp and paper production facilities.
  • The USDA/DOE funded Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) includes pulp and paper companies and government researchers. This work is focused on creating value added products from isolated lignin, including emulsifiers, adhesives, fuels, and carbon-fibers.
  • The USDA funded Biomass Integrated Supply Systems (IBSS) project that is a 5 year collaboration focused the sustainable production, collection and delivery of woody biomass. A key element of this work is the integration of supply chain, the conversion technology and the financial and life cycle metrics.
  • A series of USDA funded National Research Initiative (NRI) for student training. These NRI grants have funded 5 cohorts, totaling 14 PhD students, who are working on biomaterials, bioenergy, biotechnology, and integration of financial and biomaterials production processes. The years ahead will likely continue to bring many more changes to the department’s curriculum and inspire new research initiatives as NC State continues to shape its Forest Biomaterials program to meet the needs of allied industries while promoting sustainable use of the world’s resources. We are up to the challenge. With over 55 years of success behind us, the Department of Forest Biomaterials is looking forward to many more years of scientific leadership and many more years of sponsoring innovative teaching, research and extension activities.