News: 2011, January 24th

Featured Story

by Jessica Nelson

New Paths:
An Auburn alumnus blazes his own trail in graduate school and beyond.

 

AUBURN – Norm Sammons is tall with a relaxed and easygoing manner – not what you would expect from someone who managed to earn an MBA and Ph.D. in chemical engineering, concurrently, in less than six years. That is exactly what Norm did, however.

Norm Sammons

After finishing a Bachelor’s at Georgia Tech, Norm knew exactly what he wanted. He’d always been intrigued by chemistry, but by the time he finished at Georgia Tech, he knew that he wanted to study the way that business and chemistry come together in the real world.  After looking around at universities that had respected and ranked programs in both chemical engineering and business, he visited Auburn first, due to its proximity to Atlanta and his family. As it happened, it was a perfect fit on the first try. Dr. Chris Roberts recruited Norm and “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so to speak.”

It was definitely Auburn’s gain. Not only did Norm make waves with his dissertation, which yielded several publications and still causes people to contact him for advice and clarification, but he’s now working with a startup company that leverages Auburn research into marketable commodities. Auburn University is a stakeholder, and the company is expanding, so it is a great asset to the community and the university.

Norm’s dissertation research was a mix of sound business and engineering principles, with a dash of a save-the-world ethos thrown in. Specifically, he studied the biorefinery business. Biorefineries take biologically based products – trees, forest byproducts, even animal waste – and convert them to a product that can be used as a fuel source. There are loads of options, but a distinct lack of information comparing the business end of these processes. Dr. Sammons employed a complex algorithm to determine which fuels and processes provided the best outlook for a company’s bottom line, while minimizing environmental impact of the fuel-making process.

Norm estimates that producing biomass efficiently could reduce our dependence on foreign fuels by 10 – 15%, which is a pretty big dent. For perspective, that is potentially over 20 million barrels a day, based  the US Energy Information Administration estimates of US petroleum consumption (http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=oil_home#tab2).

With collaboration from universities and research facilities around the world, Norm examined a variety of feedstock for fuel manufacturing, including switchgrass, chicken waste, and black liquor, a byproduct from the paper-making process. Because Alabama Forest and Bioresource Manufacturing Center provided funding for the project, thinking of alternative ways to deal with black liquor, a byproduct from the pulp and paper industry, was a one of his primary case studies. Currently black liquor is burned for fuel, which is both a water and air pollutant, and stinks. If the industry can find other efficient ways to use this product as a biofuel, both the business and everyone around them would benefit.

There’s no easy answer, though people often contact him looking for one. Dr. Sammons is not stingy with his research, and gives his callers his methodology for examining profitability versus environmental impact, which varies with each situation. “I still field questions from people who are interested, and I try to help them along as much as I can,” he says.

His time is at a premium, though, because immediately after Auburn Norm found a job that was perfect for him. Intramicron, a startup company that was born out of the Chemical Engineering department at Auburn, needed exactly what Norm had: a background in both business and engineering. The added bonus was that he got to stay in Auburn. “It’s just a great place to live,” he says.

Intramicron is dedicated to micro-sized materials research and manufacturing, and does its best to marry these two. Micron in the company’s name refers to micrometer sized particles, which are larger than nanoparticles, but still quite small: 1/70th the diameter of a human hair. These particles have a lot of unique properties, Norm says, and Auburn is on the cutting edge of research in the field. Intramicron is an exclusive licensee of micro-scale technology coming out of Auburn. This way the jobs and revenue generated stay in the Auburn community.

In short, “It was a match made in heaven,” he says. It certainly seems serendipitous that Intramicron was looking for just someone like Norm, because as far as he knows, he was the first to attempt these two particular degrees concurrently. He praises the Business and Engineering faculty: “They couldn’t have been more wonderful as far as my unique plan of education.” The two departments cooperated and put together a curriculum tailored for Norm.

Now Norm divides his time between a lab, a manufacturing plant, and an office. “I’m very much a jack of all trades,” he says. He has helped the company develop a business infrastructure – making sure an accounting system is in place, making sure that rules and policies are in place. Since they work with government contract often – they manufacture the fibers used to make stealth aircraft, for example – Intramicron has a special need for efficiency and transparency.

One of Norm’s other special skills is to bridge the gap between engineers and the business world. As a corporation, Intramicron has a responsibility to stockholders, but engineers are thinking about a different kind of bottom line.  He can explain what an engineer’s “improved specifications” mean in business terms for the company.

Dr. Norm Sammons has carved out a place for himself in Intramicron and the Auburn community with the ease that he carved out a new path in his studies. Auburn is fortunate to have him.

Silhouette of Samford, Hargis, oaks, with tiger, eagle