Maine turning new tricks from old industries

Fishing and logging

Maine lobster - man pikin

Photo courtesy of man pikin

The US state of Maine is finding new uses for traditional industries.

Maine logging - Tony Fischer Photography

The state has a long history in areas of historical industrial importance such as fishing (especially for lobster) and forestry.

While it continues to maintain strength in these core areas, shifting economics have made them less lucrative opportunities. But instead of changing course entirely and developing new areas of expertise, Maine has chosen another tactic.

It is looking to develop new applications that extend its traditional strengths. This includes innovations such as the development of golf balls from lobster shells and bio-jet fuel as well as advanced bio-mass pellets from trees. 

Maine is world famous for its lobsters, which are exported across the USA and to countries in Europe, says Julia Mills, Europe project manager for Invest in Maine.

But global warming has been linked to rising lobster populations – ironic in an industry where the phenomenon is more likely to be linked to shortages. These increased catches have driven down margins in the industry and created a need for new revenue streams.

One way the industry can improve profitability is by looking at new uses for otherwise discarded by-products. Research at the University of Maine has done this – turning lobster-shells, an otherwise discarded by-product of canning, into golf balls.

Although the balls do not fly quite as far as normal balls, they are comparable in flight, says Alex Caddell, one of the researchers on the project. They are also bio-degradable and do not cost significantly more to produce, he adds.

It is hoped that the balls will find a market-niche by being used on cruise-ships – where distance is less important and bio-degradability can prove to be a bonus.

“We’re using a by-product of the lobster canning industry which is currently miserably underutilised –it ends up in a landfill,” says  University of Maine Biological and Chemical Engineering Professor, David Neivandt. “We’re employing it in a value-added consumer product which hopefully has some cachet in the market.”

Similar advancements can be seen in other industries. Research is underway at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences into how to turn algae into a variety of products including fuels, cosmetics and new materials. Scientists are also looking into what can be done with other renewable resources – particularly forestry by-products.

Experts at the University of Maine have developed a new method of turning trees into bio-jet fuel, says Mills. The process was recently tested at a US Air Force facility in Ohio but still needs to be scaled and commercialised, she adds.  “I’m not saying that it will be here tomorrow, but this is an exciting opportunity which has the potential to benefit both Maine’s forestry industry and the environment.”

There have also been opportunities created around biomass fuels for renewable energy products. The creation of torrefied wood pellets – pellets that are easier to transport and more efficient when burned, almost like charcoal - has already started to attract attention. Renewable energy regulations, particularly in the EU, have created a shortage of fuels from renewable sources – leading to an export opportunity. Maine producers have taken advantage and started to produce torrefied biomass pellets, says Mills.

Further opportunities continue to develop using other natural resources in Maine. The state’s excellent wind has led to generating opportunities – especially off-shore – and a support industry has sprung up around it. In particular, there has been significant progress in the development and testing of new turbine blades made with composite materials at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

The state has been able to use shipbuilding industry experience to further its composites industry. It also has been able to develop an advanced materials industry that produces everything from the felt on tennis balls to material for bullet proof vests. It seems that the state known for its rugged coast-line and Scottish climate has more to offer than one might initially think.

Next steps and more information

Maine - Schoodic Point - Kim Carpenter

Photo courtesy of Kim Carpenter

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