Engineers like to break things. In my years reporting on university research, I’ve seen them bend reinforced wood beams as wide as my front door until they shatter. They’ll pummel stud walls repeatedly until the nails cry uncle. Bunker-sized concrete bridge beams will crack from one end to the other as they are stressed with the pounding that a real bridge might see over 100 years. It’s more than just the joy of destruction. How and when things break yields information that manufacturers use to build better structures. So it’s no surprise that the companies that make the things we live in, ride over and depend on support research that tells them just how far their products will take us.
Last July, eight of these companies (Arclin; Ashland, Inc.; JELD-WEN; Hexion Specialty Chemical, Inc.; Henkel; Weyerhaeuser Co.; Georgia Pacific Chemicals; and Willamette Valley Co., mostly international wood products manufacturers) had signed on and ponied up to support a new Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and Virginia Tech. The National Science Foundation set the stage with a $2.2 million five-year grant to the Wood-Based Composites Center, which is led by Virginia Tech. Fred Kamke, site director at OSU and professor of wood science (holder of the JELD-WEN Chair in Wood-Based Composites Science), describes the emphasis as “pre-competitive.” Companies want information that will move the whole industry forward. Stress testing is still on the agenda, but the emphasis for the past decade has been on the small details, the molecular bonding between wood, adhesives and synthetic materials such as carbon fiber and reinforced polymers. Businesses succeed by leveraging advances in basic science. “Wood products are now a global, intensely competitive industry, and we believe that advanced research will help keep the U.S. at the forefront of that industry,” Kamke told OSU news writer Dave Stauth in July. “This will help both existing and new companies stay competitive while they create innovative new products and jobs.” Just as important for the companies, he adds, is work force development. By providing graduate students with the resources to specialize in these areas, businesses are creating their future talent pool. Kamke has been a leader in this field for more than a decade. Before coming to OSU, he led Virginia Tech’s Wood-Based Composites Center. Among his accomplishments at OSU: a more efficient and effective way to increase resilience and strength in weak woods, a process known as viscoelastic thermal compression, or VTC. The vision for the new center includes collaboration with two other leaders in the field: the University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center and the Forestry Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia.