I recently had the good fortune to get a tour of the University of Maine’s Composite Center, one of the largest research facilities in our entire state.
Within its 100,000 square feet of laboratory space, nearly 200 people, including students, work to develop the next generation of products. The materials invented, engineered, modified and created at the lab have applications in everything from renewable energy to infrastructure, defense and national security to marine applications.
What those men and women are doing is remarkable. While I was there, I saw a next-generation structural product made of cellulose nanofiber derived from the wood pulp -- the same kind that’s fueled our paper mills for years and years. But this product was nothing like paper. It was strong, sturdy and totally machineable.
According to researchers, it could be used in light construction, wind turbines, automotive and ship structures and even ballistic material. What’s best, it can be manufactured renewably right here in Maine. With so many applications, cellulose nanofiber could not only create jobs for our future, but reinvigorate the forest product industry that’s so crucial to our heritage.
For lots of folks, the phrase “research and development” is a little nebulous. Vague imagery of scientists in lab coats come to mind, maybe. But the innovation that comes from R&D has a real-world effect by spurring the startup and growth of businesses and creating desperately needed jobs. That’s an attractive return on investment.
Take for example the famous “Bridge-in-a-Backpack,” developed at the University of Maine. It’s a lightweight, low-cost, high-performing new composite material for the construction of short- and medium length bridges. The material is so strong and resilient that bridges constructed from it are expected to last 100 years with little to or no maintenance.
With 34 percent of Maine’s bridges rated as “structurally deficient,” this new technology can help reinvigorate and strengthen our infrastructure.
That’s probably why a new business, AIT Bridges, was created in Orono to design, manufacture and sell the bridges -- not just in Maine but around the country and the world. They’re just one of many businesses that have started right here in our state because of the innovative research and development happening at UMaine.
The university, as great as it is, is not the only place where this kind of job-creating R&D can take place. But states like Massachusetts and North Carolina have shown us that it can act as an anchor for an entire research and development sector of the economy.
There’s no reason that Maine couldn’t follow in their example. I plan to submit a bill to build on UMaine’s success and expand research and development in our state. I’m in the early stages of crafting my proposal, but it’s my hope that Maine can become a national leader in R&D. Why? Because R&D means new and high paying jobs for Mainers and that should be our focus.
As always, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (207) 287-1515, if you have questions or comments.