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RBI Leader: 'The World of bioproducts, bioprocessing is key to addressing our global grand challenges

Georgia Tech's Renewable Bioproducts Institute (RBI) is perfectly positioned to help address the needs of a growing population and reduce the use of non-renewable resources through its extensive research and collaborative partnerships, according to Norman Marsolan, RBI's executive director.

Marsolan made his remarks during RBI's annual executive conference, March 7-8, on Georgia Tech's campus. Growing Resources Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow: People, Technologies & Ideas highlighted both faculty and student research. The event provided two days of dialogue to further explore collaborative partnerships between industry and RBI and how, together, they can tackle some of the biggest challenges and opportunities of the next decade and beyond.

"Advancing our understanding of the drivers of global grand challenges and potential remedies for them requires contributions from the full range of research fields that can be engaged through RBI – the people, technologies and ideas driving those fields," he said. "It also requires partnerships with you – the people and organizations that support our research and work with us to translate these advances into real-world applications."

Domtar CEO John D. Williams leads a company on the forefront of the effort to convert sustainable wood fiber into useful products.  In his conference keynote address, he said RBI stands prepared to support his industry's next great transformation with a vision of unlocking and recombining the chemical building blocks of trees in new and interesting ways to make advanced, sustainable biomaterials.

"Wood fiber is the age-old wonder material that is seemingly new again," he said. "Its inherent attributes—renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral, and cost-competitive—are driving exciting new developments. Today, we are the biomaterials prospectors of our forests, surrounded by opportunities to explore and develop.

"RBI is now looking at the horizon from the bow of our ship instead of the stern," he added. "The perspective is changing … and, in my experience, this change in perspective matters enormously. Playing to win is a very different game than playing not to lose."

And this changing landscape requires more and more collaboration and tapping of a variety of resources. RBI is one of the 12 Interdisciplinary Research Institutes on Georgia Tech’s campus. Today, these IRIs are engaging in more crosscutting research and project development than ever before as industries try to meet the challenges of the 21st century, whether it be automation in the workforce or on the farm or finding more renewable materials to reduce the use of petroleum in consumer goods. Directors representing five of these IRIs - Robotics, Materials, Manufacturing, Nanotechnology, Renewable Bioproducts - engaged industry representatives in an hour-long discussion on how their internal collaboration is maximizing their impact for companies and industries. The five-person panel, moderated by Georgia Tech associate vice president-research Christopher Jones, explored the importance of interdisciplinary partnerships to industry and the benefits that can be gained through a true innovation ecosystem at Georgia Tech.

Oliver Brand, executive director at the Institute of Electronics and Nanotechnology, said many global challenges could be addressed through a collaboration of multiple IRIs.

"Take the area of flexible electronics, which provides some of the most promising opportunities in health care applications – wearable electronics. Everyone sitting on this panel is involved in some way," he said. "You need new materials, nano, sustainable substrates and applications, and the expertise of centers like the Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience. Of course, then we need to manufacture these devices. So, there are skill-sets across the board and available across our campus that strengthen our appeal to industry.”

These collaborations are taking place between robotics and manufacturing, renewables and electronics, materials and energy, to name just a few.

This “innovation ecosystem,” which has become a cornerstone of cross-cutting collaboration and a key focus of Georgia Tech’s Vice President of Research Steve Cross, has resulting in a win-win for both Georgia Tech and its industry partners, according to Jones.

“The original ecosystem began in 2003 with a few investments in Tech Square. Now it’s booming. The number of companies wanting to co-locate here exceeds the space available,” Jones said. “IRIs are central to our approach in targeting investment. They provide a single, industry-facing point of entry into Georgia Tech, and this type of concierge service will enable us to grow.”

But it was the premier research – long drawing companies to Tech Square and beyond – that took center stage during the conference. RBI-affiliated faculty members were on hand to share the latest innovative approaches in the development, processing, and use of forest bioproducts, from biorefining and bioprocessing to nanocellulose and other biomaterials.

RBI’s Ph.D. Fellows shared the results of their endowment-sponsored research during the conference sessions, and also were given one-on-one time to interact with industry guests and academics during RBI’s annual poster competition. Nearly 40 Ph.D. students sponsored by RBI’s endowment participated in this year’s poster competition. Read more about the winners here.

Visit our website to read about our full lineup of speakers and presenters and explore their presentations.

The Renewable Bioproducts Institute (RBI) builds on nearly a century of lignocellulosics research to transform biomaterials into new products, including traditional and new forest products, renewable energy, chemicals, advanced materials and pharmaceuticals. This research not only enhances the portfolios of industries, from automotive to pulp and paper and aerospace to consumer products, but also seeks to address the global challenges of achieving a more sustainable environment.