They say the future is bleak for Maine’s forest industry. They say all the best young minds are leaving this state, not entering it.

Perhaps they should spend an hour with Nadir Yildirim.

“We all know what wood products are. They are furniture, they are papers, they are wooden toys for the children,” Yildirim said Wednesday in the quiet of his tiny office on the second floor of a bank building on Main Street in Orono.

Enter Revolution Research Inc., founded by Yildirim two years ago to look at trees in a whole new light.

Think wood-based insulation that keeps out the winter chill. Or maybe ceiling tiles that don’t sag with age.

“Revolutionary products from the trees,” Yildirim said. “We would like to show that we can produce from the trees smart products, futurist materials. Because people have newer needs.”

He’s 31. Five years ago, the government in his native Turkey gave him a scholarship to pursue his scientific dreams anywhere he wanted in the world and, of all places, he chose the University of Maine.

Now here Yildirim is, armed with a Ph.D. in forest resources and a passionate belief in the power of nanocellulose fibrils. Also known as microscopic wood fibers.

Nadir Yildirim holds a wood-and-water slurry in one hand and a sample insulation board made from the slurry in the other at his lab at the University of Maine in Orono. Described as "not a run-of-the-mill guy," his goal is to make innovative items from wood products.

Nadir Yildirim holds a wood-and-water slurry in one hand and a sample insulation board made from the slurry in the other at his lab at the University of Maine in Orono. Described as “not a run-of-the-mill guy,” his goal is to make innovative items from wood products. File photo/Kevin Bennett

His fledgling company earned the latest in a steady parade of headlines last week when the Environmental Protection Agency awarded it $100,000 to develop “green” ceiling tiles.

That grant, part of the EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, comes on the heels of a $247,000 award last year from the National Science Foundation to create a new form of rigid foam insulation. It’s made primarily from nanocellulose fibrils rather than the synthentic materials currently used in most foam insulation boards.

In short, others may wring their hands over the inevitable decline of the paper industry in a digital age. Yildirim, meanwhile, is hard at work turning wood into an entirely new generation of products that are recyclable, save energy and might someday (fingers crossed) shine a ray of hope on a Maine industry that lately has had little to cheer about.

“I’ve been a professor for 30 years. I’ve had a lot of graduate students,” said Dr. Steven Shaler, director of UMaine’s School of Forest Resources and now a member of Revolution Research’s scientific advisory board. “I’ve never had anybody like (Yildirim). I’ve never seen anybody like that. He’s not a run-of-the-mill guy.”

It shows.

In addition to his two major grants, Yildirim has obtained several kick-starter awards from the Maine Technology Institute not only to develop his products, but also to conduct far-reaching market analysis, develop a business plan and apply for all-important patents for his sprouting technology.

He won the 2015 UMaine Business Challenge. The statewide competition attracts college students with innovative business plans that last year ranged from a submersible research robot to an online platform for planning trips to the Maine woods.

He won a $10,000 cash prize in this year’s Top Gun Track Entrepreneur Development Program. Created by the Maine Center for Economic Development, the four-month regimen nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit through mentoring, networking and peer-to-peer brainstorming.

He was one of three finalists last year on “Greenlight Maine,” the television show that spotlights the best and brightest of Maine’s up-and-coming inventors and entrepreneurs.

Worth noting: When another contestant, Garbage to Garden, placed first in the “Greenlight Maine” competition, Revolution Research immediately fired off a Facebook post congratulating the winners and wishing them luck.

“We are not competing,” said Yildirim with a smile. “We are all working for the Maine economy – and, to be honest, for ourselves, as well.”

That, in Yildirim’s case, includes his wife, Duygu, who serves as Revolution Research’s administrative assistant, and their two daughters, ages 1 and 3.

Meaning there’s a lot at stake here as he spends at least 60 hours per week shuttling between his leased office space and UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

That’s where Yildirim and his part-time researcher, UMaine engineering senior William West, do the gritty work of actually producing their prototypes, testing them, improving on what works, fixing what doesn’t, testing them again …

“The iPhone didn’t show up in a day,” Yildirim said. “It showed up after years of research. It takes time.”

Take his foam insulation board, for example.

Waterproof, fire retardant and free of the chemical soup that goes into the polystyrene boards now dominating the market, the latest prototype is 10 by 12 inches, ½-inch thick and has an R-value (which measures thermal resistance) of 2. That’s pretty good compared to most products already out there, but not good enough.

“The goal for Phase 2 (which could trigger another $750,000 in research and development funds from the National Science Foundation) is to keep the board at its current thickness, but increase the R-value. We want to get R-3 per half-inch,” Yildirim said.

Who cares?

Well, for starters, Owens Corning. The global leader in commercial insulation products reached out to Yildirim last year to see if he wanted to, shall we say, collaborate. The conversation continues, but Yildirim is in no hurry to sign on the dotted line.

“Of course, we didn’t say no,” he said. “But we are still very new to the market. We need to be safe.”

His ultimate goal is to perfect the technologies behind his insulation boards and ceiling tiles and, by the year 2020, license them for full-scale commercial production and marketing.

“It can be a big manufacturer. It can be paper mills,” Yildirim said. “We are in contact with some paper mills.”

Imagine that: An erstwhile Maine paper mill churning out foam insulation and/or ceiling tiles from the same trees it once used to make paper.

Sure, it’s wishful thinking. But it’s also what Maine needs more of – a smart young guy willing to put down his roots at the intersection of Maine’s past and its future.

A guy who sees nothing but opportunity not only in Maine’s forested hills, but also in its increasingly useless mills.

Thomas Edison surely would approve.

“To invent, you need a good imagination,” the father of modern-day innovation once said. “And a pile of junk.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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