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