SAVANNAH — Container trucks rumbled in and out of Savannah’s port facilities behind Gov. Nathan Deal as he spoke under a canopy at the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center’s 75th anniversary celebration. This week’s ceremony also fell near the first anniversary of the center’s new identity as a part of Georgia Southern University.
Chemist Dr. Charles H. Herty, also the namesake of a building and forest preserve on the Georgia Southern campus in Statesboro, founded the Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory in 1932. In 1938, the year that Herty died, the state established the Herty Foundation to carry on his work. Long affiliated with the Georgia Forestry Commission, the 120,000-square-foot industrial lab was reassigned to the Department of Economic Development in 2005, and then to Georgia Southern on July 1, after Deal came to the Statesboro campus in April to sign the act into law.
“Many of you’ve heard me say that repeatedly that my real goal for our state is to make it the best place in the nation in which to do business, and what you do here is one of those components that will allow us to achieve that goal,” Deal told Herty staff members Wednesday.
The lab where Herty applied chemistry to building a paper industry based on Southern pine forests later assisted chemical industry giant DuPont in creating applications for Kevlar and Nomex, known for their bullet- and fire-resistant properties. Today, Herty Center researchers are refining processes similar to those used for paper making to create new synthetic nonwoven materials, potentially including some with nanofibers of microscopic width. They are also working on improvements to wood pellets burned as an energy source and researching other biofuels.
“The defining moment in the history of the Herty Center occurred in 1960, when the center and DuPont began projects related to the development of synthetic nonwoven materials from advanced fibers like Nomex and Kevlar,” said Dr. Alexander Koukoulas, the center’s president and CEO.
But he also noted the center’s continuing work with the wood-based pulp and paper industry. Deal had cited statistics from 2011, when the pulp and paper industry in Georgia brought in more than $15 billion revenue and accounted for more than 118,000 jobs.
Koukoulas, a product development researcher who holds more than 20 patents, was previously the chief scientist at International Paper and held other industry and foundation jobs related to fiber materials production in the United States and Canada. He was hired effective in November to lead the Herty Center under its new linkage with Georgia Southern.
Through contracts with the paper industry and companies such as DuPont, the Herty Center has always been involved in applied research. By being part of Georgia Southern, Koukoulas said, the center should connect to the more fundamental types or research usually associated with universities.
“Now, of course, with the university, what we’re trying to do is develop linkages with early stage research, and then we can really say that we’re taking concepts right the way through to commercialization,” he said.
In return, the center expands the university’s commitment to research, adding to recognition achieved in other research areas, from engineering to nursing, GSU President Dr. Brooks Keel said. But the governor talked about the state’s commitment to the planned deepening of the Savannah harbor and other economic development projects, and Keel also highlighted economic development.
“The alignment of Herty and Georgia Southern will not only enhance the research mission of Georgia Southern, but more importantly, it will significantly expand the economic development role that our university plays in Savannah, in Statesboro, in south Georgia and around the globe,” Keel said.
Savannah TV personality Sonny Dixon emceed the ceremony. After the speeches, guests went inside the center’s headquarters, a newer-looking portion of the complex, for a reception. Along the hallway were laboratory doors marked as off-limits. The governor and a small entourage had a brief tour of a part of the facility.
Another part of the facility, adjoining the headquarters, looks older and more like a paper mill. It contains a small-scale, but still towering, “paper machine,” a wood pulp dryer, and a more recently added pellet mill for making wood pellets, such as those being burned along with coal in European power plants.
Guests in general were given quick tours of some parts of this facility but were not allowed to bring cameras. Much of the research is confidential because companies pay to have it done.
Guests met Dr. Omar Ali, the director of the center’s bioproducts division. He showed samples of wood pulp before and after drying, finished wood pellets, and cellulose sugar made from wood. While development of wood pellets focuses on improving a product already in use, research is still underway to make production of ethanol from cellulose sugar economically practical. But several companies are close to achieving it, Ali said.
Dr. David White, the director of the advanced materials division, also used samples in plastic bags to explain that carbon and synthetic materials, in addition to organic materials such wood fibers, can be handled much like wood to produce “nonwoven” materials. He briefly mentioned nanofibers.
The Herty Center, which staff members often call the “plant,” employs about 70 people. With its industry contracts, the center pays for itself, according to Koukoulas, Keel and state Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. The state’s financial role is limited to providing the buildings, according to Hill.
“This operation is a completely soft-money funded, contract-funded operation. It doesn’t require any state dollars to support it,” Keel said. “It’s all based on the contracts that they do.”
However, staffers are looking at whether the university can provide the center cost savings on things such as purchasing and facilities maintenance, Keel added. He and Koukoulas said some details of the relationship are still being worked out.
So far under the new arrangement, no GSU students have worked at the Herty Center as interns or in class projects. The first “summer student,” an undergraduate in chemistry, is slated to arrive at Herty soon. Faculty members from engineering and other departments have visited and expressed interest in student involvement.
“We’re hoping to build on that, obviously,” said Koukoulas.