Iowa State's Intensive Program in Biorenewables shows students the action

AMES, Iowa - The students' talk after lunch was about lipids, double bonds and fuel standards.

It was day seven of the first Intensive Program in Biorenewables at Iowa State University. Forty six students from across the country and the world, most of them graduate students or post-doctoral researchers, were filing in to hear Steven Fales, an Iowa State professor of agronomy, speak about "Next Generation Biofuels: What are the Challenges?"

Henok Dejenie Belayneh, a native of Ethiopia who's working on a master's degree in food technology at Ghent University in Belgium, said he rearranged his summer schedule so he could spend two weeks at Iowa State seeing, discussing and studying biorenewable technologies.

Back in Belgium he's studying how lipids - organic compounds including fats, oils and waxes - can be converted into biofuels. And he sees Iowa State's program as an important part of that education.

The intensive program features talks, tours, demonstrations and tests that cover the opportunities and the challenges of developing a bioeconomy. The talks cover starch chemistry, plant biology, cell wall biochemistry, biofuels production, biofuels economics, next generation feedstocks and more. The tours include visits to Cargill headquarters in Minneapolis, Iowa State's BioCentury Research Farm, the Renewable Energy Group biodiesel plant in Ralston and the Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant near Nevada. And there are three exams to keep the students focused.

After several years of participating in a biorenewables program in Europe, "We thought this was our chance to bring students from around the world to the center of the real action in biorenewables," said Larry Johnson, the director of Iowa State's Center for Crop Utilization Research and the university's BioCentury Research Farm, a professor of food science and human nutrition and a program organizer.

Besides, "I feel we need to do a much better job of articulating the need and the opportunities and the state of the technology around biofuels," Johnson said. "Biofuels have taken such huge and terrible hits based on faulty information, we need to get the other side of the story out - one that is based on sound science."

The state of the science was front and center during Fales' talk. He walked the students through a paper he co-wrote that outlines five steps to build a biofuels industry based on cellulosic biomass rather than grain. He said researchers need to:

  • gather and assess biomass yield data
  • redesign crop systems to optimize biomass production without limiting yields of food, feed and fiber
  • develop advanced energy crops ("This is as exciting to me as medical science," Fales told the students. "This is no longer about farming. This is about life sciences. There are now tremendous opportunities in the life sciences.")
  • plan and build the technologies, logistics and infrastructure necessary to transport and store biomass
  • spread the facts about the promise and challenges of a bioeconomy through education and extension programs.

Abigail Martin, a doctoral student in environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said Fales and others at Iowa State's intensive program are providing her with a different perspective on energy and environmental issues.

In California, she said the discussion is about land-use policies and low-carbon fuel standards. In Iowa, she's hearing about new cropping systems and sustainable ag practices. She said the new perspectives can contribute to her research of biofuel policies and regulations.

Raj Raman - the associate director of educational programs for Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute, an associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and a program organizer - said one goal of the intensive program was to bring students from a variety of backgrounds together to share and debate their views.

Another goal was to share some of Iowa State's expertise in biorenewable research and technology. Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute boasts more than 160 affiliated faculty members across the university and more than $51 million in cumulative sponsored research funding from industry and federal agencies since 2002. Its director, Robert C. Brown, has written one textbook on biorenewables and an upcoming book about biofuels.

"This is an important topic," Raman said, "and we have a unique ability and expertise to share it with the world."

A $600,000 gift from Cargill is supporting the Intensive Program in Biorenewables and other Iowa State education programs focused on the bioeconomy.

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