Shmulsky furthers timber research to fuel discovery


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Posted: 10/9/2015

Shmulsky furthers timber research to fuel discovery Photo By: Megan Bean

Dr. Rubin Shmulsky greatly enjoys his job leading the Department of Sustainable Bioproducts in the College of Forest Resources at Mississippi State University. Every day he has an opportunity to appreciate the role of trees as one of nature's greatest gifts, and to wisely utilize that gift for societal benefits.

Professor Shmulsky and his colleagues are taking timber research to a new level and positively impacting the world's people in the process. The MSU Department of Sustainable Bioproducts is a national leader in the development of wood durability and preservation technologies, the conversion of woody biomass into liquid fuels, the use of small diameter and low-value trees, and the testing of engineered wood products in furniture. In addition, MSU is training conservation professionals who will teach the importance of sustainability and proper management of the world's natural resources to future generations.

"The United States is the biggest producer and biggest consumer of wood products and our challenge is how best to manipulate woody raw materials to provide maximum benefits to a global society," said Shmulsky, who is also associate director of the MSU Sustainable Energy Research Center, whose facility houses pilot-scale technology for bio-oil and biocrude production and allows industry partners to test their products utilizing the center's equipment and expertise.

Mississippi State leads a national field in biosustainable research, sharing the top echelon with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Oregon State University.

"Each of our peer programs has nuances, however MSU is a premier institution in softwood lumber research and wood protection, and we are very strongly positioned in many other areas," said Shmulsky.

The timber-based industry is a major economic generator for the state and the nation and veteran faculty members like Shmulsky help keep MSU at the forefront as they discover ways to maximize the uses of timber and timber products to further commerce.

"Mississippi State's research in sustainable bioproducts contributes significantly to the Mississippi economy," said George Hopper, CFR dean. "Forest and forest product industries result in nearly $10.5 million annually to the state's economy and employs more than 63,000 people of which many are educated, trained or assisted in some manner by our institution."

Over the last few decades, the timber profession has evolved to include both wood and other bioproducts, including agricultural residues, natural fibers and adhesives. The department works with wood products for furniture manufacturing and preservation, durability and affordability in domestic and commercial housing, and as an alternate energy source to benefit the environment.

"Across the U.S., university-level wood science and forest products programs have evolved to include a broadened focus on sustainability, conservation, renewable resources and environmental stewardship," said Shmulsky, adding these concepts have been present in the MSU program since it began in 1964.

Shmulsky and other MSU scientists focus on timber as a possible source of energy, since producing and using alternative energy is more important than ever. Because crops like corn are used in ethanol production, but are needed as a food source, new efforts must center on developing biofuels from other non-food agricultural based-products as well as from other components like bark, leaves and chips.

"There are many types of biomass that can be used to produce fuel, including underbrush, pine needles and tree branches, and these have few if any other economically viable uses," Shmulsky said. "There are also other crops, such as giant miscanthus and switchgrass, that aren't useful for human consumption. We can't eat them, make clothes out of them, or build houses with them, but we may be able to use them as alternative energy sources."

Sustainable bioproducts research is not confined to the College of Forest Resources at MSU; collaboration exists between CFR and the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, the Dave C. Swalm School of Chemical Engineering, and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Faculty members in these areas work together to turn wood into plastics and polymer wraps for automobiles, to create new types of bio-derived fuel, and to test fuel performance in the engines laboratory. Also, faculty in the College of Art, Architecture, and Design work to incorporate sustainable products and design concepts into housing and other building structures for now and for the future.

Besides finding possibilities for everyday life, student education plays heavily in the mission of the College of Forest Resources. The Department of Sustainable Bioproducts currently offers graduate degrees only, however the faculty is starting a new undergraduate program and the MSU curriculum committee approved the proposed curriculum in late 2014. It is anticipated that graduates of this new program will add to the pool of professionals in related commerce and industry. The department has an excellent placement rate and among its alumni are corporate executives, federal scientists and USDA projects leaders, as well as national and international university-level faculty.

"We want to help develop the next generation of professionals in these natural-resource related disciplines and gifts for scholarships and assistantships will help these students realize their potential without the financial burden of student loans for their education," said Shmulsky, who earned a master of science and a doctor of philosophy degree from MSU.

Grants from public sources fund much of this timber research at Mississippi State, however private gifts create a positive difference, particularly with development opportunities that give faculty additional training in pivotal areas. Endowed positions held by distinguished faculty researchers are essential to MSU. In particular, an endowment for a renewable energy chair would help Mississippi State continue its focus on areas that will create renewable energy and bio oil.

A renewable energy chair, combined with licensed technology, will ensure the university continues to be a leader in bioenergy with long-term goals of economic enrichment for the state. The chair position, possible with an Infinite Impact gift, would also collaborate with other MSU units and external partners to further efforts in sustainable bioproducts.

The College of Forest Resources will meet the demands of today and continue to create an impact well into the future with creative faculty and talented students. It is through education and discovery that MSU will influence tomorrow's leaders in timber education, conservation and energy-related fields, and create a greater understanding of the environment and conservation in the world's people.

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