Armando MacDonald (Professor)

Professor of wood chemistry and wood composites University of Idaho   

In the University of Idaho Forest Products Research Lab, New Zealand native Armando “Mac” MacDonald works with exciting possibilities for the future of the wood industry. “There are huge opportunities from bio-fuels research to develop new composite materials that have a low carbon footprint,” he says. “A wood chemist works on understanding the chemistry of wood as a material and how this relates to its properties such as strength or what impact lumber drying has on air quality.”

Armando’s U of I lab focuses on fundamental and applied research. “In fundamental research we investigate a new process or phenomenon to understand what is happening from a chemistry or wood science perspective. This research is typically done by a graduate student,” he explains. “In applied research we take our research from the lab bench, and we go from a proof of concept (or prototype) and help industry make it a reality by helping to launch a new product or process. Applied research has an impact on the forest industry.”

As a child in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, Armando loved pulling apart things like lawnmowers, radios, etc. to see how they worked. Then he’d rebuild them. This curiosity eventually forged his pathway toward chemistry.

“I still have a fascination for pulling things apart and rebuilding,” he says, “and that is why I spend my off hours doing car restoration. I have two ongoing projects—a ’66 Plymouth Barracuda and a ’66 Chrysler 300.” This childhood fetish for tinkering and analyzing led Armando to the University of Otago in Dunedin where he earned his Bachelor and Master of Science degrees. The latter  focused on polysaccharides (carbohydrates) from a native plant called the “cabbage tree.”

He then worked as a carbohydrate chemist at the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua on the North Island. “Since wood is 70 percent polysaccharide, my academic background positioned me to work in wood chemistry,” he explains. “I started work on a cellulosic ethanol project and progressed onto wood pulp fiber treatments for enhanced paper quality.” Desiring more education, Armando moved on to Toronto, Canada, where, in 1993, he completed his PhD degree in bacterial chemistry at Yorktown University.

In his thesis, entitled “Lipopolysaccharides from Campylobacter,” he focused on determining the chemical structure of a surface bacteria responsible for food poisoning and other infection-based syndromes affecting the immune system. The goal for this research was to understand the workings of the bacteria and subsequently develop a vaccine to fight its effects.

After returning for eight more years of research in New Zealand, he began his present position at the U of I in 2001. Like most university professors, Armando juggles his duties. In addition to research, his responsibilities extend from teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students to writing grant proposals to fund research projects. One year alone, his efforts helped net $200,000 worth of grants for U of I research. He has authored extensive publications, focusing on topics dealing with wood behavior, use and influences.

A portion of his time goes to extension programs, “helping the forest products industry with  processing issues (such as air emissions) and developing new products from low grade lumber and sawdust residues.” He also travels, attending meetings or speaking on wood-related topics at conferences throughout the country and the world. “The perks are interacting with people both regionally and internationally,” he says. “This gives a broad perspective of the global forest products industry. “

Armando says his greatest satisfaction comes from undergraduate and graduate students who have matured over their tenure with his department. As for his own career choice, he enjoys wood chemistry “because the job is constantly changing and is very challenging. [We must] constantly be current and develop new ideas that progress into new products and processes.”

In looking toward its future, he believes the traditional markets of lumber, paper and composites will continue to be commodity driven. He also sees biofuels (pellets, bio-oils, ethanol, etc.) chemicals as by/co-products from the biofuels industry and niche-based materials (bioplastics, enhanced wood and (biocomposites) as emerging aspects of the industry.

“I work in both areas (traditional and emerging). Idaho needs to be grounded in producing base products and products of the future,” he advises. “This will give us our competitive advantage. The industry has to invest in the future to survive and not be dependent solely on the housing market.”

Want to know more?

º General information about University of Idaho College of Natural Resources

º Overview of offerings at U of I Department of Wood Products

º Service and Research Equipment Available at the U of I Wood Products Lab

º USFS Forest Products Research Lab

º Forest Products Society

º U of I Forest Products Society Student Club