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Posted on Jun 10, 2014

Return of the Native

The future of golf may lie in its past, where rolling fairways have brown edges that fade into varieties of native plants, not the water-sucking monotony of four-inch Bermuda rough.

That’s the look Pinehurst No. 2 sports once again thanks to a restoration launched four years ago by noted golf course redesigners Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw with a little help from NC State researchers. The course is getting international attention over the next two weeks as the United States Golf Association conducts for the first time in history its two premier championships, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, at the famed course built in 1907 by Donald Ross.

It looks nothing like the course where the men played their championships in 1999 and 2005. It’s more reminiscent of the 1940s and ‘50s, when the course was Ross’ backyard, before others began to replace naturally occurring plants with acres and acres of Bermuda grass to create the orderly, kept appearance of an arboretum.

“A course as historic as Pinehurst No. 2 doesn’t have to be manicured to within an inch of its life. It can be a little wild.” — NC State crop scientist Danesha Seth Carley.

But that well-groomed look takes a lot of maintenance, chemical fertilizer and, most importantly, water. And solving water issues, says USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, is the most important challenge facing the golf industry.

“The biggest threat, long-term, to the game is water,” Davis says. “Whether it’s right now in certain parts of the country, or a hundred years from now, water is going to be the thing that ultimately is going to affect the game the most.”

That’s no small issue for North Carolina’s 556 golf courses, 52 stand-alone driving ranges and 44 miniature courses, which infuse $2.6 billion a year into the state’s economy and provide some 53,000 jobs. According to a 2011 study, golf’s direct revenues are comparable to agricultural crops ($2.6 billion); science, research and development services ($2.9 billion) and semiconductor components manufacturing ($2.9 billion).

So making the industry economically and environmentally sustainable is critically important to the state’s economy. And that’s the focus of NC State assistant professor of crop science Danesha Seth Carley’s research for Pinehurst over the last four years, as Coore and Crenshaw used aerial photos from the 1940s to recreate the original look.

With funding and corporate research support from Triangle-based Bayer CropScience, Carley and her students have helped Pinehurst identify the plants that have returned to the course since nearly 40 acres of manicured turf and some 700 irrigation sprinkler heads were removed. Other than 10,000 sprigs of wiregrass, native to the Sandhills, the course was a blank slate for returning native vegetation.

Carley created guidebooks for the Pinehurst maintenance staff to quickly identify the plants that were desirable to keep, like Eastern prickly pear, pine weed and toad flax. And she showed the staff which non-native, weedy and invasive species to eliminate before the plants took permanent root.

The native plants are generally less flashy, but easier to maintain in their natural habitat, Carley says. So spectators may not see the blooming azaleas or a sea of green of The Masters in Augusta, Ga., but they could be seeing the next generation of golf course maintenance and design.

“One of the things I hope people will walk away with after the two Opens is that the traditional idea of a Southern country club golf course will be changed,” says Carley, who received her undergraduate degree in biology from Earlham College in Indiana, her master’s degree in entomology and plant pathology from Tennessee and her doctorate from NC State. “A course as historic as Pinehurst No. 2 doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall Bermuda grass, manicured to within an inch of its life. It can be a little wild.

“Most courses don’t have the resources to do a whole scale renovation the way Pinehurst No. 2 did, but anybody can start with a little area and do some of what Pinehurst did, if they are interested. This is an inspiration to reform their thinking about what golf courses need to look like.”

The new roughs at Pinehurst No. 2 feature native plants such as Eastern prickly pear, pineweed and pigweed.

The new roughs at Pinehurst No. 2 feature native plants such as Eastern prickly pear, pineweed and pigweed.

Pinehurst officials are quick to point out that the restoration of No. 2 – one of the oldest and most important public courses in the country – was done simply to take the course back to its original state. But they couldn’t be more pleased that by taking out the turf, removing much of the artificial irrigation and returning the rough to a more natural state, the course has reduced its water usage from 50 million gallons a year before the redesign to a little over nine million gallons last year.

“Pinehurst wasn’t doing it for the economics of it,” says Carley, who did her postdoctoral work under NC State professor of environmental plant biology Tom Rufty. “They were taking it back to the original look of the course for that historical perspective. But from an economic standpoint, it is a great example of what could be done by courses across the country.”

The Pinehurst story will be told many times over the next two weeks, as the men begin their 72-hole championship on Thursday and the women begin play next Thursday. It’s the first time in history that the USGA will hold its two premier championships on the same course in successive weeks.

So the golf course, with two major championships and six days of practice rounds, will be under scrutiny as the USGA will push course superintendent Kevin Robinson, a graduate of NC State’s turfgrass management program, to create fast and firm fairways and greens.

It’s a look that has been four years in the making, with research that could help change the way golf courses look for many years to come.

“This may look like golf in the past, in terms of the presentation of the course, but in so many ways, this is golf of the future,” Coore says. “In today’s world, with water issues, environmental impact issues, the costs associated… the majority of courses are going to have to go more in this direction.”

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Posted on May 30, 2014

A Sustainable Solution

In the developing world, the absence of affordable sanitary pads is more than a health and hygiene issue — it’s an economic and educational problem, too.

The solution to that problem is a cheap, sustainable, locally sourced sanitary pad. Researchers at NC State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with nonprofit partner Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), developed such a solution for deployment in Rwanda.

But Raleigh and Cambridge are a long way from the Rwandan capital of Kigali. It took a particular set of skills to cover the distance between success in the lab and results in the field, skills that 32-year-old NC State junior Tyson Huffman acquired as a Marine, a construction worker, a farmer, a restaurant manager and a process engineer for a paper mill.

“He’s a prototypical example of ‘think and do.’” — Med Byrd, NC State paper scientist, on Tyson Huffman.

For most of the last year, Huffman has been in Kigali, leading the effort to build a facility that can manufacture 1,000 sanitary pads a day.
“This guy went over there and did what I don’t think any faculty member or any student could have done,” said Med Byrd, associate professor of paper science and engineering at NC State. “In the space of about three months, with no tools, he took them from two machines in the middle of a parking lot to a dedicated crew making fluff pulp.”

That pulp is the heart of the project. In 2009, SHE founder Elizabeth Sharpf and a group of MIT students set out to find a sustainable, inexpensive way to make sanitary pads from agricultural byproducts local to Rwanda. They developed a two-step process for turning banana fibers and water into a fluffy pulp and making pads from that pulp. The chemical-free material is more absorbent than anything commercially available, Byrd said.

SHE turned to NC State to take the project from the research lab to the real world. Textile and biomedical engineering professor/director of Global Health Initiatives in the Office of International Affairs Marian McCord, Byrd and others refined the process and then sought someone who could go to Rwanda in 2013 and scale the project up. Several recent chemical engineering graduates applied, but none of them had Huffman’s unique skills.

“He’s a prototypical example of ‘think and do,’” Byrd said.

Huffman has served as a “MacGyver-in-residence,” said Connie Lewin, director of marketing and strategic partnerships for SHE. When the disappearance of Huffman’s luggage on the way to Rwanda deprived the project of needed washers, he replaced them with bottle caps. He designed a process that sped fluff-drying time by 400 percent and worked with his team to build a system for recycling wastewater.

“He’s creating new tools and spending time with our staff there so when he leaves they’re fully equipped and empowered to run the production facility on their own,” Lewin said.

NC State junior Tyson Huffman (right) and a team member repair equipment at a facility producing sanitary pads in Rwanda.

NC State junior Tyson Huffman (right) and a team member repair equipment at a facility producing sanitary pads in Rwanda. (Photo by Huffman)

Eventually, SHE plans to manufacture 250,000 pads a year and distribute them cheaply to local schools, Lewin said. That could be a game-changer for Rwandan girls and women. On average, a Rwandan woman loses $215 in annual income due to work days missed during menstruation, according to SHE estimates. The average Rwandan earns $578 a year, according to the United Nations.

Success would also create economic prosperity in Kigali. Huffman manages a team of 12 Rwanda employees, and they’ll continue producing pads after he leaves. The potential for a lasting, sustainable impact drew Huffman to the SHE project.

“The word ‘sustainable’ has become a buzzword and is thrown around too loosely,” he said. “I don’t really believe in charity. Throwing money at a problem is certainly not sustainable. However, creating a business employing local people, using agricultural waste and breaking even is the definition of sustainable.”

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Posted on May 27, 2014

Powerful Partnerships

In an industrial design studio at NC State University, students are brainstorming ideas for adapting kitchen appliances to reclaim the heat that is usually lost during food preparation. It’s a complex project involving advanced materials, cutting-edge prototypes and sophisticated cost-flow modeling.

This isn’t your typical design class; these students are as likely to be majoring in engineering or business management as industrial design. And they’re hoping for more than just a good grade. They want their names on a patent that could ultimately lead to new products for use in restaurant kitchens.

It’s this kind of “think and do” attitude that led Fortune 500 firm Eastman Chemical Company to ink a six-year, $10 million research agreement with NC State in 2012. Since then, the company has sponsored more than 30 research projects tapping the talents of high-performing students and world-leading researchers in nine departments across the 2,000-acre campus, including industrial design, chemistry, forest biomaterials, materials science and engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and textile engineering, chemistry and science.

Partner of Choice

Confronting Global Challenges

In just the past several months, NC State has been selected to lead some of the federal government’s most important collaborative research projects, including a $140 million advanced manufacturing institute, a $60 million big data laboratory and a $25 million effort to combat the spread of nuclear weapons. And NC State has been chosen to lead one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seven regional climate research hubs.

After just four rounds of funding, the partnership has already resulted in six patent applications for new and improved products. That’s good news for Eastman, a global company with 14,000 employees and 45 manufacturing sites worldwide that relies on innovation to maintain its leadership in chemicals, fibers and plastics.

Stewart Witzeman, director of the Eastman Innovation Center at NC State, says the company’s partnership with the university is successful because “it’s a high-touch model.”

“We decided we wanted to be directly engaged and physically present on campus,” he says.

Eastman found ample space for its new center in the heart of NC State’s Centennial Campus, the university’s public-private research campus. Centennial is home to more than 60 government, industry and nonprofit partners as well as more than 70 NC State research and academic units. Eastman’s center is walking distance to the College of Engineering, the College of Textiles and the technology-rich Hunt Library, giving the center’s scientists easy access to much of the university’s research infrastructure.

“Our goal was to have fewer, deeper relationships with key departments at the university, and that’s certainly what we’ve obtained,” Witzeman says. “There’s a spirit of partnership at NC State, not an ‘us versus them’ mentality.”

‘A Hub for Hubs’

Collaboration is encoded into NC State’s DNA. The university has become known for leading large partnerships that leverage the skills of experts across a wide range of fields in the public and private sectors to solve complex problems.

“I think we’re the best in the country at leading public-private partnerships,” says Terri Lomax, vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development. “We’ve become a hub for hubs.”

Since she took the division’s helm five years ago, Lomax has focused on fine-tuning administrative processes to make them more suited to the needs of industry.

In Eastman’s case, Lomax and her team worked with the company to hammer out a master research agreement up front. Since all the details of the relationship have already been set down in one document, it takes remarkably little paperwork for Eastman to approve new research projects.

“I can initiate a project with a simple task order, which is essentially saying we approve the budget and the project plan,” Witzeman says. “There’s no way we could have done 30 individual research contracts with different universities in this short amount of time.”

The university’s focus on the customer doesn’t end there. Brian Smith, a senior partnership developer in NC State’s Centennial Campus Partnership Office, helps Eastman make the most of its relationship with the university, ensuring that projects are implemented smoothly and efficiently.

“I work on the nuts and bolts of the relationship with NC State and Eastman staff to make sure we translate the master research agreement into an effective partnership,” he says.

Stewart Witzeman, director of the Eastman Innovation Center at NC State, speaks during the "Transforming Economies: The Role of University Innovation in Economic Growth" summit in February 2013.

Stewart Witzeman, director of the Eastman Innovation Center at NC State, speaks during the “Transforming Economies: The Role of University Innovation in Economic Growth” summit in February 2013.

Respect for Industry

NC State also makes it easy for strategic industry partners to reap the fruits of university research by agreeing to licensing terms and fees for intellectual property up front.

“If they are willing to pay a small engagement fee up front, we’ll allow them to manage the intellectual property and the commercialization process,” Lomax explains. “They don’t pay royalties to the university until they reach a certain milestone of sales.”

That innovation-friendly mindset is grounded in an understanding of the risks businesses face in an era of tough global competition. “We’re not going to nickel-and-dime our industry partners while they’re spending their resources to develop a product and get it to market,” she says.

That business-friendly culture was one of the primary reasons Eastman selected NC State as a research partner, Witzeman says.

“We looked at a lot of universities,” he says. “Some were more dogmatic, some were more open. At NC State, there’s an attitude among the administration and the faculty of wanting to work with industry and of understanding the kind of problems we’re trying to solve.”

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