The wood science and forest products department has been renamed the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials to reflect its widening scope of education and research. “Sustainable biomaterials is a term that recognizes our broadening path for the future while maintaining our roots in natural materials, including forest products,” said Department Head Barry Goodell.

The department, which was established in 1979 as an offshoot of the university’s forestry program, has become a recognized North American leader in student education, research, and outreach. In recent years, faculty expertise has diversified to include nanomaterials, drug delivery, adhesion science, advanced composites, nontimber forest products, biofuels, aseptic packaging, and sustainable biomaterials.

“Virginia’s forest industries remain a $25-billion contributor to the state’s economy, and we will continue to serve this important sector,” Goodell said. “The new department name is broad enough to encompass newer aspects of the field, such as biofuels and renewable materials. We will continue to work with wood as one of the most widely used biomaterials, but we are expanding our focus to include other natural materials as well.”

The new designation aligns with the college’s increased emphasis on sustainability and the environment, noted Dean Paul Winistorfer: “We are working to put science behind the theme of sustainability, and the increased use of natural renewable materials must be a key part of our global sustainability commitment. The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials will have the opportunity to shift the materials-use paradigm among academics, industry, and the public at large. We are leveraging our traditional strengths to a larger, societal perspective.”

“We are excited about the opportunity to continue serving the needs of our core industrial partners and society at large while reflecting our expanding research options,” Goodell added. “In particular, we know that the term sustainable biomaterials positively reflects the activities of the department to our students and prospective students, which, in turn, is helping to increase interest in this field.”

Department faculty members have long been conducting research that doesn’t fit easily under the banner of wood science and forest products. Professor Kevin Edgar’s research using polysaccharides from natural sources for improved delivery of anticancer compounds crosses disciplinary boundaries, as does Associate Professor Scott Renneckar’s nanocellulose research focusing on converting biobased feedstocks into materials and composites. Associate Professor Maren Roman’s research targets cellulose drug delivery and nanoscale materials for bone repair scaffolds.

Young Teck Kim, assistant professor of practice, focuses much of his work on food and pharmaceutical packaging systems, while others in the department have expanded instruction in lean manufacturing and sustainable business practices to many new industries. Goodell himself has conducted research on the bioconversion of wood and cellulosic materials for biofuels, as well as on the development of nanoporous carbon and carbon nanotubes for energy storage applications.

Faculty members are expanding and redefining the realm of education, research, and outreach, such as innovation-based manufacturing, lean business, sustainable building technologies, and packaging systems and design. The new department name encompasses faculty expertise in a more accurate and futuristic way and will help define new opportunities for students.

“Our undergraduate enrollment has almost doubled in the year since we began using the term sustainable biomaterials on our website and in our recruiting materials,” Goodell said. “This is due to the efforts of our faculty and students in advancing the program in the new directions the name represents. We have several exciting degree programs under development that will continue to broaden career opportunities for our students.”

Recent analyses indicate the strength of this employment sector. Wired Magazine’s analysis of 7 million LinkedIn users who switched industries in the past five years showed the strongest gains in the renewables and the environment category — almost double the growth of any other field. An IBISWorld report forecasts that the sustainable building material manufacturing
industry will post the fastest growth in wages over the next five years.

“Based on the many employer requests we receive for our graduates, we anticipate strong demand from businesses in many different economic sectors,” said Goodell. “In 2011 and 2012, every one of the department’s graduates landed a career-level position, which is impressive given the current job market. Educating our students in the broader field of sustainable biomaterials is opening up more doors for our students, and all evidence indicates that this is a continuing trend.”