GO Lab principals Matt O’Malia, left, and Joshua Henry at the former UPM paper mill in Madison (Photo: Lauryn Hottinger)
GO Lab principals Matt O’Malia, left, and Joshua Henry at the former UPM paper mill in Madison (Photo: Lauryn Hottinger)
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A cargo ship from an operator that has delivered wood pulp to Searsport a half-dozen times over the past year — from Scandinavia and the Southern U.S. — delivered a load of machinery from Germany on February 22 that turns wood pulp into insulation panels.

The equipment is to be installed in Madison, where Belfast-based GO Lab is converting the former UPM paper mill to a manufacturing plant — the first of its kind in the U.S. — to produce three styles of proprietary wood-fiber insulation, under the product name TimberHP.

GO Lab President Joshua Henry said the 50 shipping containers and other pieces unloaded in Searsport, including what appeared to be a half-dozen massive cylindrical objects, represent one continuous manufacturing line for wood-fiber panels designed to be competitive with the ubiquitous pink and yellow foam exterior insulation panels used today in building construction.

The panels produced by GO Lab will be roughly 95% softwood, 4% glue, and 1% paraffin, which acts as a waterproofing agent.

“The process involves refining wood fiber, and then drying it and combining it with a glue, sort of a Gorilla Glue–type product that’s used commonly in wood composite manufacturing,” Henry said. “There’s nothing used chemically to break down the fiber, that’s entirely a physical process, it’s basically like pressure cooking food, cooking wood chips, and then using mechanical plates to break it down into fiber, and then reforming it.”

Any chemicals that are used, such as those added to meet fire protection standards, are comparable to chemicals commonly used today in construction.

“Once the end of the product’s life is done, this product could be recycled and put back into a process like this,” Henry said. “It could be burned in a biomass facility with virtually the same properties as any other wood product.”

GO Lab’s literature describes it as having a “negative carbon footprint.”

As of Monday morning, Henry hadn’t laid eyes on the cargo ship, but he guessed that the large cylinders might be stainless steel tanks, each three stories tall, to be filled with glue.

In addition to panel insulation, GO Lab plans to manufacture batting and loose fill, which could be used in place of fiberglass batting and blown-in insulation, respectively.

Henry and GO Lab co-principal Matt O’Malia hadn’t planned to get into manufacturing when they incorporated in 2017. O’Malia’s firm GO Logic had been designing and constructing energy-efficient passive buildings for years but had been nagged by the environmental footprint of synthetic insulating materials. Wood-fiber insulation had manufactured in Europe for decades, but importing it was impractical, Henry said. At the same time, he and O’Malia were watching paper mills close and saw an opportunity for the industry to pivot, or another one to grow up in its place.

“What we were trying to do was get other manufacturers interested in manufacturing it in the United States,” Henry said. “So we built the whole business plan around that, not thinking that we were going to be the manufacturers, but that we wanted to buy the product.”

While doing the business plan, they realized the scope of opportunity, and through what Henry described as “an iterative process,” the plan grew, along with the GO Lab team, a stable of investors and assistance from state agencies and development groups, including the Finance Authority of Maine, the Department of Economic and Community Development and Maine Technology Institute.

GO Lab bought the former paper mill in August 2019 for $1.9 million and hired three of UPM Paper’s top manufacturing staff members, Marty Troy, Rick Veinotte and Joe Clark, to advise on the conversion.

Henry said the manufacturing could easily take up all of the former mill space but GO Lab has also been talking with other start-ups that are pursuing new wood products about possible collaboration.

The company is looking at a few pieces of equipment in Europe, but Henry said the other two principal lines of manufacturing equipment are going to come from within the U.S. — one from Washington and another from the Midwest — and will probably arrive by truck or rail. A number of smaller parts will be fabricated in Maine, he said.

“The way we look at it, this is going to be the first of a number of facilities across the U.S., as part of our business plan and what we’ve presented to investors,” Henry said. “We believe this is a mainstream product, that it has a number of differentiable properties and advantageous properties, and a price point that is going to make it attractive widely throughout the building materials industry.”

The insulation can be made with any type and combination of softwood — Henry calls it “species agnostic” — and despite the recent shipments of wood pulp to Maine (for an unknown buyer, though not GO Lab) Henry believes there’s plenty of raw material locally.

“In Europe, these products are being manufactured from sawmill residuals or from pulp chips,” Henry said, “So basically what Madison was consuming before it was shut down by UPM.”

The shipments of wood pulp to Searsport over the past year were not for GO Lab, and Henry doesn’t envision importing the raw material for Timber HP products.

Most of the wood, he said, would come from relatively close to the former mill in Madison, and “if not a hundred percent, close to a hundred percent from the state of Maine.”