IRI Intros: 5 Questions with Norman Marsolan

You’ve probably heard that Georgia Tech has a number of Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRIs) – but do you know much about them? 

This article is the second in a series of Q&As to introduce the Tech community to the eight IRIs and their faculty leaders. In this installment, Executive Director Norman Marsolan answers questions about the Georgia Tech Institute of Paper Science and Technology.


Q:  How does IPST link the forest bioproducts industry with Georgia Tech, and what are IPST’s strategic objectives?

A: The forest yields an abundant raw material—cellulose—for conversion and upgrade through a broad array of scientific disciplines and ingenuity. So, IPST is not just about paper – it’s about upgrading an available resource for the good of society and the economy.

With four Georgia Tech schools, 20 professors, and 50 graduate students collaborating to develop value and opportunity from the forest, IPST provides a two-way portal between the industry and Georgia Tech. This portal gives this major U.S. industry ready access to a leading research university and its breadth and depth of capability. In turn, Georgia Tech gains access and insights into an industry processing cellulose – the most abundant polymer on earth – so it can create truly 21st-century materials and products.

At IPST, we see the forest and the trees. We are focused on research that covers three areas: operational excellence in pulp and paper processes; biorefining for the creation of sustainable fuels and chemicals from forest biomass; and biomaterials for making new products for new markets. This covers an extensive range of research opportunities that will serve a number of consumer markets in the future.


Q. How does IPST create opportunities for Georgia Tech research?

A: In recent years, new capabilities have emerged to unlock the vast potential of forest-based cellulose and lignin and to manipulate them at the nano level to develop cost-effective biodegradable films, coatings, substrates, and even carbon fiber. IPST facilitates awareness and exploration of those materials across disciplines and throughout Georgia Tech’s broad industrial reach, promoting technology transfer. As a result, Georgia Tech has gained a window into a complex, abundant, sustainable, renewable raw material, rich with possibilities.

Similarly, the multibillion-dollar forest bioproducts industry has much to gain by availing itself of the full range of Georgia Tech research opportunities. IPST can help companies, alone or in collaboration, design projects, attract funding, and access research expertise. IPST also offers research services, which include chemical analysis, gasification, microscopy, paper physical analysis, pulp analysis and chemical recovery.  


Q. Is IPST set up to support interdisciplinary research?

A: The fact that the Paper Science and Engineering program draws students from four schools within Georgia Tech promotes our interdisciplinary character. Students participating in this program enroll through Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. We have also attracted faculty who work collaboratively across research centers such as the Center for Organic Photonics and Electronics (COPE) and other IRIs, including the Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.

The value of our interdisciplinary experience was cited by one of our recent Ph.D. graduates in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. She said the emphasis on biomaterials and renewable materials attracted her attention; she believes the skills and perspectives she learned in those areas will be useful no matter what industry she serves. Describing the benefit of collaborating in an IRI, she referred to the broad diversity of students in the IPST building. She had friends there whom she could approach for materials science, biology, or chemistry perspectives. She is now well connected in many more fields as a result. IPST also linked her directly with the forest bioproducts industry, where she collaborated with companies and learned firsthand about their need for innovation.


Q: Does IPST promote information and education concerning the forest bioproducts community throughout its constituencies? 

A: IPST hosts an annual executive conference at which we join with industry to focus on key research priorities, with our faculty and students providing current research information. This year, our member companies, guests, and related industry and governmental organizations focused on potential scenarios for 2035, including the influences future demographic and economic changes, natural resource availability, and environmental demands will have on the industry. Additionally, we conduct subject-matter events, such as the alternative fiber workshop held last year with Kimberly-Clark.

We also aggressively seek opportunities to create interaction between our students and companies. Built into our conferences are opportunities for our students to engage with participating industry representatives. Through our member companies, students also have the chance to work as co-ops and interact frequently with their researchers and leadership.

IPST also maintains the Robert C. Williams Papermaking Museum, which reaches students from elementary school to those at the college level. The records and information maintained at the museum are a valuable database, and the extensive Haselton Library, with thousands of pulp and paper publications, is part of the Georgia Tech permanent archive.

Another notable initiative is our collaboration with Georgia Tech Professional Education; the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute; the Schools of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and the Scheller College of Business to develop an innovative Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership program, designed to meet the evolving needs of companies for new leaders.

 

Q: What will the forest bioproducts industry look like in the future?

A: Today, the pulp and paper industry constitutes a $14 billion enterprise in Georgia. The industry is based on a sustainable, renewable natural resource, positioning it well to play a critical role in the decades ahead. Forest biomass is expanding into vast new applications. We are looking to research to find new applications for expanding markets such as biofuels, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage packaging, electronics, health and hygiene, and advanced materials. We are also focused on providing forest bioproducts to address a future world with restricted water for manufacturing, with a drastically increased world population, and with growth and advancement in developing countries. Environmental issues will continue to have a strong influence on manufacturing in the future, and health and sanitation needs may require waterless solutions that forest bioproducts can provide.

At IPST, we are actively shaping our research program to address the critical questions of resource conservation and new products to meet the emerging and changing needs of expanding world populations. A great deal of IPST work also is focused on new uses for the cellulose, lignin, and chemicals derived from our sustainable resource – trees.

We are excited about the future and welcome the opportunity to speak with any Georgia Tech faculty interested in the exciting work we are helping to facilitate. If you are interested in learning more about this work or partnering with IPST, please contact us at any time.