The Lab That Keeps Innovating New Materials

The University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center is developing potentially game-changing materials for the industry

When Dr. Habib Dagher founded the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center in 1996, he was working with a close team in pursuit of the narrow mission of developing next-generation composite materials using bio-based materials.

Now, almost 25 years later, the lab—and its mission—has grown considerably.

“Today, we have 240 people who work in the lab, a roughly 100,000-square-foot laboratory space, working on over a hundred different projects at any given time, developing materials and structures for over 500 clients across the globe”, Dagher said.

Those clients’ needs span everything from civil construction, like bridges; energy structures, like wind energy and turbine support (with a particular focus on offshore wind technology); boat building and even space travel, with applications aimed at helping NASA put people on Mars.

“The theme is structures and materials, and how to use structures and materials efficiently in all of these different spaces”, Dagher said.

Material change

The lab partners with clients from all of these different industries to help develop new material technologies. “The lab is ISO 17025 certified”, Dagher said, “so we also do structural and material testing for clients. Typically, anything we do is automatically approved to be used in applications for building codes”.

And if a company doesn’t yet exist to use a new composite material that the lab is developing, Dagher said his team will find ways to get it into the market.

“We’ve had a number of companies develop from the lab”, Dagher said. “One of our missions is economic development. So, as we develop new technologies, we’ll either licence an existing company to use the technology, or spin off a new business to take it to market. If there’s a whole new product line that doesn’t fit into somebody else’s business, we would work to help spin off the business from scratch, using investors”.

This diverse client base has led the University of Maine to develop a staggering array of composite materials.

“Composites can be designed for end-use applications”, Dagher said, “so you can tailor the material to your needs. And that’s the advantage of composites—they are materials by design, if you wish. It could be bio-based composites, it could be synthetic resins and fibres, or it could be bio-based resins and fibres. It could be combinations thereof”.

There are also many advantages of using composite-based materials for a variety of applications.

“In general, they’re lightweight”, Dagher said. “They have strength-to-stiffness properties, and strength-to-weight properties that are very advantageous, so you can make very lightweight structures compared to typical construction materials. The other advantage is that typically they’re more durable than conventional material systems. You can design them to exceed the typical life cycles of traditional materials”.

Environmentally friendly

In addition to their benefits during the active phases of the construction process, using properly designed composite materials can actually change the whole environmental picture of any given project, Dagher said, actively reducing the lifecycle costs and carbon footprint of a particular system.

“What we try to do all the time is look at things from cradle to grave”, Dagher said. “Part of going in the direction of bio-based materials is using recyclable composites”. This focus on biomaterials is part of the lab’s Green Energy and Materials strategic initiative, a ten-year attempt to mitigate environmental challenges inherent in contemporary construction practices.

“What we’re doing here is developing systems that reduce the carbon footprint of construction and gives us bio-based materials that could be 100% recycled at the end of their life”, Dagher said. While typical plastics are petroleum-based, Dagher and his team have been working to develop thermoplastic-based composites and bio-based thermoplastics, which are biodegradable and recyclable.

3D by design

On 10 October 2019, the lab unveiled its latest project: the GEM initiative, the world’s largest 3D printer. The lab says it will use the 3D printer to print recyclable plastic composites that can be used in a variety of ways in the construction process.

“One of the examples could be formwork for concrete”, Dagher said. “Using the printer to create very advanced architectural forms that would be otherwise very difficult to make, creating one-of-a-kind formwork”.

And once the formwork has been used, “We take it back from you”, Dagher said. “We’ll grind it up and do it again. That changes the game in terms of the potential to have more innovation, and then the waste at the end of the life of the construction project is significantly reduced”.

Dagher said his goal is to continue contributing to the environmental changes needed in the construction industry in order for it to become more sustainable.

“We really have to start thinking completely differently about how we build things”, Dagher said. “We have to start thinking about how we recycle things, and what kind of embodied energy content we have in these systems. We need to build systems that are less petroleum-based to reduce the impact on the global climate”.

Thanks to initiatives like its bioplastic 3D printer and its extensive portfolio of clean energy projects, the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center is continuing to lead the way.