ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine's Process Development Center has a new machine that takes pulp and makes paper plates, bowls, and cups.
The goal is to eliminate plastics and instead use paper products that serve the same purposes.
"Looking at our great wonderful trees, it's a legacy industry the state," Colleen Walker, director at the Process Development Center, said. "This is what I think is the next big thing for Maine forests and Mainers."
Researchers at UMaine are testing the cups and plates and are now available to work with different companies interested in this wood-pulp-to-paper-product process. The university is also training people to use the equipment to support the forest industry as it grows.
"It's a simple step for them to come here, be trained on this, and then join that growing market for fiber-based plastic packaging replacements," Walker said.
This is the first machine of its kind on any university in the U.S.
The manufacturing company from Germany said it hopes to expand its footprint as the technology gains momentum.
"The service that we do for the University of Maine, [is] provide these contract research services to companies so that they can come in here, work confidentially with us and with our staff, to develop the formulations that we need," Walker said.
The fiber thermoforming machine in Orono will help advance renewable packaging research, which will be very beneficial for Maine's forest products industry.
Kiefel, an international leader in thermoforming and joining technology that is part of the Siegsdorf, Germany-based Bruckner Group, selected UMaine as its vital research partner to work with natural fibers like cellulose, straw, or plants to use as its main material for the cups and plates.
The machine is called Natureformer. Matt Sieverding runs Bruckner Group USA.
"When it comes to special recipe developments [and] when it comes to new processes that we want to try, it is very important for us to work together with the local universities," Sieverding said.
"Kiefel and Brueckner have a long tradition of collaboration with educational institutions, and we consider these partnerships vital to innovation," Sieverding said. "In recent years, Kiefel has invested significantly in the development of fiber thermoforming, and we sought to work with UMaine because of their expertise in fiber processing and leadership in wood-based bioeconomy research and development. We're particularly excited to see how UMaine researchers might employ nanocellulose to optimize the barrier properties of thermoformed fiber and help enhance product quality."
Kiefel has a bigger commercially-available machine. The lab machine at UMaine in Orono will be mainly utilized for research and contract work with companies.
"This partnership is significant for both UMaine and the state of Maine," Walker said. "With Kiefel's Natureformer, our researchers can explore new value-added uses for Maine wood fiber in sustainable packaging applications, and the PDC will meaningfully contribute to the growth of fiber thermoforming knowledge in Maine and beyond."
Walker added UMaine students can showcase their engineering skills and work on sustainable solutions through this machine.
"You need to know about forest fiber, chemistry, a lot of robotics. It touches all the UMaine disciplines. We are really excited to have this on campus!" Walker said.