Forests are perhaps the United States’ greatest renewable resource. They also hold significant untapped potential, according to Hasan Jameel, the Jordan Family Distinguished Professor for Natural Resource Innovation at NC State University.
Jameel and his students in the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Forest Biomaterials are working to change that. Their findings could help reduce the nation’s dependence on nonrenewable resources like oil, increase profits in the forest products industry and contribute to a more sustainable economy.
“The forest products industry is a success, but we always have to strive to get more value from our forests. Presently, only about half of the wood is turned into paper, and the rest is burned. The economics could be significantly improved if value-added products could be produced from the portion of the raw material that is not being used today,” Jameel said. “Our goal is to eventually make more things from renewable resources.”
For example, lignin — an organic substance in wood — could potentially be used to sustainably produce plastics, adhesives, carbon fibers and other chemicals.
“Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not,” Jameel said. “But institutions like NC State can play a lead role in developing these products of the future.”
Jameel’s appointment as the Jordan Family Distinguished Professor helped jumpstart the research. College of Natural Resources alumni Robert B. Jordan III, Jack P. Jordan, Genie Jordan Ussery and Robert B. Jordan IV established the professorship to recognize outstanding faculty and facilitate innovative research with the potential to impact the economy, quality of life and environmental sustainability.
The flexibility provided by the professorship is key, Jameel said. He often receives funding from companies and the federal government for graduate students to work on projects with relatively strict parameters. While Jameel is grateful for those resources, the professorship allows him to “let students be.”
“When I have a project from the industry, I’m very careful about how much risk I can let students take. We’re trying to come up with a deliverable, and we’re trying to get there very quickly,” he said.
“But to me, graduate training has to be about being creative and innovative, taking risks, failing and redoing it. That’s what the Jordan Professorship money lets me do. I’ve been able to turn students loose, and I’m convinced they’re going to do great stuff.”
Jameel’s graduate students aren’t the only ones benefiting directly from philanthropy. He estimates about half of NC State’s undergraduate paper science and engineering majors have scholarships, which he said attract high-quality students.
“Without those scholarships, a lot of these students wouldn’t be in our program,” he said. “We get some really top-notch students.”
Jameel feels so strongly about the positive impact of private support that he endowed his own scholarship, the Jameel Family Scholarship in Paper Science and Engineering. A longtime supporter of the College of Natural Resources, Jameel gives regularly.
“Every chance I get, if I find extra money, I try to give back to NC State,” he said. “It’s a win-win for both sides. They’ve given me a great job, and if I can help students, I’m more than happy to do it.”
Jameel only wishes the university had a stronger culture of philanthropy, but he has seen positive movement in recent years. Students are becoming more aware of the critical role of private support in their education, he said.
Gifts to NC State are necessary investments in the future, according to Jameel.
“If you want to take it to the next level, you’ve got to have people become more involved with education,” he said.