OSU bioenergy minor recruits students to create better way of looking at energy

The bioenergy program seeks to build a strong foothold at Oregon State University. It would provide students with the opportunity to get involved with an emerging field, to better inform the public on renewable energy and to make a dynamic difference in how future generations deal with energy.

The bioenergy minor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU began in 2011. The minor program is funded by a five-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

The goal is to establish a strong bioenergy minor that is built into OSU's coursework within the duration of the grant cycle ending in 2016.

Especially in Oregon, bioenergy is big. The wood in Oregon forests is almost an endless supply of renewable plant materials to be used, according to Reece Hammer, a graduate assistant in the bioenergy program.

"We're taking carbon that is right in front of us, and from that, we can then burn that while we regrow a tree and (the tree) is taking in the carbon that is being burned," Hammer said. "That's the closed-loop approach of sustainable bioenergy."

Hammer defines bioenergy as a renewable energy made from existing biological sources and any organic material, which stores sunlight and then converts that sunlight into chemical energy that can be harnessed as fuel.

"When people are asked what bioenergy is, no one can really describe it -- they know of solar polar or wind power, but there's much more to it than that," Hammer said. "Bioenergy can come from wood, wastewater, straw, manure, grass seed, sugar cane and any agricultural product."

The main purpose of the minor and getting people educated about bioenergy is that it is a highly innovative field and it can translate into any academic discipline, Hammer said.

"We want economists coming in and teachers to pass this vital information onto future generations," Hammer said.

There are 20 students enrolled with the bioenergy minor.

Within the program, there are many funding and scholarship opportunities for bioenergy minor students to carry out their research.

The bioenergy minor program offers a one-time $1,000 supplement to its students that may not have the funding necessary to enable them to carry out their research.

As a form of bioenergy, microbial fuel cells are currently used at Widmer Brothers Brewing Company in Portland. This application of bioenergy stemmed from the research contributions of bioenergy students working under the guidance of Hong Liu, an associate professor in the department of biological and ecological engineering at OSU.

A requirement for students in order to receive the bioenergy minor is to perform some sort of research that will result in a final capstone project and a thesis.

Bioenergy students have the opportunity to seek out a faculty mentor and work together to identify and cultivate their research interest.

From the student and mentor collaboration, students work to complete their final project.

Partnerships like OSU's with Pacific Gas and Electric at the Boardman Coal Plant help to cultivate strong career prospects for students that take on the bioenergy minor.

Pacific Biodiesel out of Salem and Stalbush Farms of Corvallis are other companies that are looking to hire OSU bioenergy students.

According to Hammer, providing more students with access to the bioenergy minor has important implications for society.

"We don't have enough energy resources to provide for the need of everyone, unsustainable materials like oil are going to be gone at some point," Hammer said. "The innovation that drives the bioenergy minor is the closest sustainable thing we can do for society as a whole."

Dacotah-Victoria Splichalova

Science reporter


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