Bell Museum’s cooked wood highlights niche industry opportunity

Close-up of wooden planks

A few years ago, architecture firm Perkins+Will came to a conclusion while drawing plans for the new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus: it was time to get cooking.

Now, following the architects’ design, workers are covering nearly half of the Bell’s exterior with Minnesota white pine that has been cooked in a giant kiln. The process, called thermal modification, is a chemical-free way to make wood more stable and water-resistant. Workers will finish installing the specialized wood in March, with the Bell Museum itself reopening in summer 2018.

The Bell project highlights an economic opportunity for Minnesota — and one where the Natural Resources Research Institute at the U of M Duluth plays a crucial role. Researchers involved in NRRI’s Wood Products and Bioeconomy initiative, which focuses on helping strengthen Minnesota’s forestry industry in an environmentally sound way, are leading research into the field of thermally modified wood. Continue reading

Highlights from a year of excellence in research

Collage of Annual Report story images

Last month, the University of Minnesota’s annual State of Research report highlighted a research enterprise that continues to grow, driven by greater diversification of funding sources and enhanced public-private partnership.

The report, produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research, also highlighted several ongoing research projects that are advancing knowledge across a wide variety of fields. These efforts are shedding light on youth brain function, boosting computing technology, exploring new mining processes and improving transportation systems.

Below, Inquiry explores each of these projects and their potential to benefit society. Continue reading

Resilient communities: Q&A with Rolf Weberg

Rolf Weberg came to the University’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth in the spring of 2014 following a successful 25-year career at DuPont in global research and development. His graduation from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1982 led to a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1986 before he launched his career.

Weberg has tremendous enthusiasm for NRRI’s unique mission of sustainable natural resource management and economic development for resilient communities. And that enthusiasm is reaching out across the University of Minnesota, the state, even the globe. Fresh from a trip to Germany with Minnesota legislators to learn about new energy opportunities, Weberg effuses about NRRI’s opportunities.

Continue reading

Startup Profile: The Actives Factory

Autumn Birch Trees

The Actives Factory prepares the natural chemicals found in birch tree bark for use in environmentally friendly cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and more. The company is based on scientific discoveries by Pavel Krasutsky, director of the Chemical Extractives Laboratory at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute.


Technology

The birch tree has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to protect itself from harmful bacteria, fungi and viruses by producing natural chemicals. Studies show these compounds, found in the trees’ bark, kill bacteria and prevent the growth of viruses, making them ideal for use in many different personal care products, such as soaps, shampoos and body lotions. The Actives Factory uses patented technology invented at the U of M to extract beneficial chemicals from the bark on an industrial scale, which can then be sold wholesale to manufacturers.


Potential impact

Birch bark is a widely available byproduct left over from pulp and paper mills. Rather than discarding it through burning, the Actives Factory puts this resource to use, processing it into a form that can be used in a wide range of everyday cosmetic and hygiene products, as well as many pharmaceuticals that treat serious illnesses. With its natural ability to limit inflammation, bacterial infection and virus growth, birch bark is an effective ingredient in medicines and completely safe for human use. Continue reading

Partnership creates eco-friendly method to clean mine water

Peatland

As the nation’s largest producer of iron ore and taconite, Minnesota has historically depended on its mining industry. The state’s mining operations, which have seen a resurgence in recent years, provide raw materials for everything from cars to electronics, employ more than 4,100 people and have a $3.2 billion annual impact, according to a recent report produced by the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics.

Recently, tightening Environmental Protection Agency regulations have spurred mining companies to up their environmental game and remove more contaminants from mine water. According to the EPA, consuming high concentrations of heavy metals causes kidney damage, bone disease and other health problems. While mining companies are already required to adhere to strict environmental guidelines, industry leaders are seeking more effective, cost-efficient and renewable alternatives to existing methods like oil-based ion exchange systems, chemical reagents and reverse osmosis systems.

Now, a Minnesota-based business and U of M researchers are teaming up to develop industry solutions to fill this need. In 2009, Aitkin-based American Peat Technology, which manufactures environmentally beneficial products, signed its first research agreement with the U to partner with UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute. The partnership opened the door for NRRI and APT to explore new ways to use peat to remove harmful pollutants from mine water. In 2013, APT signed another research agreement with the U under the new Minnesota Innovation Partnerships (MN-IP) program, establishing the partnership that continues today. Continue reading