A consortium of academics, government officials and industry leaders wants to refocus the state on wood products and create a hub for bio-materials produced from Michigan’s forests.
The Michigan Forest Biomaterials Institute was created in partnership between Houghton-based Michigan Technological University and Michigan State University in East Lansing. With the initiative, the members hope to create a statewide effort to establish manufacturing capabilities to produce, use and recycle wood products in innovative ways.
At the same time, stakeholders in the Biomaterials Institute are also busy drumming up support for Reforge, a program that spun out from the group that aims to solicit more funding from the state to support forestry research. The Reforge program would dedicate state dollars to specific research goals chosen in concert between the forestry industry and universities, said Rich Kobe, chair of the MSU Department of Forestry.
“Things move fast and commerce is traded globally, and you need to be nimble,” Kobe said, citing the current slow process of obtaining funding for forestry-related research. “Funding under project Reforge would enable those faster responses as opposed to waiting a year after you submit a grant. Industry would set priorities on what their needs were, then researchers could put in proposals to meet those needs.”
Leaders of the Reforge project are targeting a $5 million investment from the state to begin the project, Kobe said.
“It’s a fairly small investment when you consider the overall contributions of the forest products industry in Michigan,” he said.
Forest-related industries make up a $18 billion sector in Michigan and account for one out of every seven jobs in the state, said Bill O’Neill, natural resources deputy for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
In 2013, the state hosted the first Governor’s Forest Products Summit, where Gov. Rick Snyder challenged the industry to increase its economic contribution to $20 billion by 2018.
“Building on that economic foundation is really important,” O’Neill said. “From planting the trees to harvesting and refining, that all has great economic value and that value is spread across Michigan in rural economies and urban economies in every aspect of that wood process.”
Proponents of both the Biomaterials Institute and the Reforge program say that increasing the state’s forestry industry will drive myriad benefits to the Michigan economy.
For one, building a strong and innovative forestry industry could be used as an economic development tool to buoy rural areas such as Lake County that struggle with poverty and unemployment, O’Neill said. The unemployment rate in Lake County, situated about 70 miles north of Grand Rapids, reached 8.4 percent in March 2016, compared to 3.3 percent unemployment in Kent County, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Newaygo County Economic Development Office is currently examining a potential partnership with the Biomaterials Institute and Reforge to bolster the forestry industry in the region, said Mark Guzniczak, the business development coordinator in Newaygo County for The Right Place Inc.
“We’re in the early stages of exploring the forestry industry itself,” Guzniczak said. “If you look at this county and other counties around here, there’s a huge inventory of raw materials, but we’re in such an early stage.”
NCEDO has yet to initiate formal talks with the Biomaterials Institute, Guzniczak said.
Beyond the economic development potential of the forestry industry, sources say more research dollars could put Michigan on the cutting edge for forest-material technology and help companies manufacture new products out of wood.
For example, the Biomaterials Institute is currently working on initial talks to build a 10-story or higher wood building in Grand Rapids, said Mark Rudnicki, a professor of practice in forest biomaterials at Michigan Tech, who helps lead the Biomaterials Institute.
Tall wood structures are primarily made of cross-laminated timber, an engineered wood product that can be used in place of concrete and steel, he said. The building would still use steel and concrete in key structural locations and include a non-flammable outer skin.
The Biomaterials Institute and the Reforge program have also garnered interest among members of the automotive industry who are developing technologies to create bio-based carbon fiber to be used in lightweight vehicle applications, Rudnicki said.
“We see this in places in Sweden where they are already developing these products,” he said. “We don’t want to fall behind in the world. We want to be right at the top technologically and getting the most value from our trees.”