The wood science and forest products department in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment has changed its name to the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials.

The decision was based on a desire to more accurately reflect the wide scope of education and research being done by the department and aligns with the college’s broader transition in recent years toward an increased emphasis on sustainability and the environment. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approved the name change on Feb. 1.

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

“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 forest industries of Virginia remain a $25-billion contributor to the state’s economy, and we will continue to serve this important sector,” Goodell continued. “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, the most widely used biomaterial, but we are expanding our focus to include other natural materials as well.”

Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college and former head of the department, said, “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, the industry, and the public at large,” Winistorfer said. “We are leveraging our traditional strengths to a larger, societal perspective.”

Programs at other universities, such as North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, and the University of Minnesota, have changed their names to contain such terms as biomaterials, bioproducts, and renewable materials. These terms have also been adopted by leading international research programs, including Kyoto University’s Division of Forest and Biomaterials Science in Japan, the Max Plank Institute of Colloids and Interfaces’ Department of Biomaterials in Germany, and the Centre for Biocomposites and Biomaterials Processing in Canada.

“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 said. “In particular, we know that the term sustainable biomaterials positively reflects the activities of the department to our students and prospective students, which is helping to increase educational interest in this field.”

For many years department faculty members have been conducting research that doesn’t fit easily under the banner of wood science and forest products. For example, 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. Goodell himself has conducted research on the bioconversion of wood/cellulosic materials for biofuels, as well as on the development of nanoporous carbon and carbon nanotubes for energy storage applications.

All faculty in the department are contributing their expertise to expand and redefine the realm of teaching, research, and outreach activities, such as innovation-based manufacturing, lean business, sustainable building technologies, and packaging systems and design. The new department name encompasses the faculty expertise in a more accurate and forward-looking 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 the career opportunities for our students.”

Recent analyses indicate the strength of this employment sector. An analysis published by Wired Magazine 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.

“From the many employer requests we receive for our graduates, we anticipate strong demand from businesses in many different economic sectors,” said Goodell. “In 2011, all of the department’s graduates landed career-level positions.”

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