Sep 102008
 
Authors: Johnny Hart

A team of CSU professors received $3 million, CSU announced this week, to increase research in biorefining and biofuels.

The group, headed by chemical and biological engineering professor Ken Reardon, received the grant from the National Science Foundation July 15 to establish the Integrated Graduate Education in Biorefining and Biofuels Program.

The program, which allows 45 doctoral students to research the field for the next five years, was awarded the grant by the NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program and is one of only 20 grants awarded nation-wide.

Reardon constructed the proposal with three CSU professors: Dan Bush, Jan Leach and Keith Paustian.

All four colleagues will run the program.

CSU additionally contributed $600,000 for graduate teaching assistance and undergraduate help for the doctoral students.

The program is designed for economics, engineering, chemistry and biology students at the university.

Students will be given the opportunity to study in each of the four aforementioned fields while still maintaining a focus on their individual major.

By establishing sustainable biofuel processes, Reardon says their research could have a positive impact on the environment.

Paustian, a professor in soil and crop sciences, specializes in the environmental impact of biofuels.

“One of the main ideas with biofuels is you want to produce a renewable energy source and use that to displace or replace fossil fuels,” Paustian said.

Reardon stressed that, for students, the program emphasizes maintenance of a well-rounded education of the biofuel industry as a whole.

“Somebody might normally just think about the fermentation to make ethanol or the engines that run the biofuels, (but) we’re trying to have the graduates of this doctoral program understand that it’s much broader than that,” Reardon said.

Students in the program will maintain a focus in one area of the field but will need to be knowledgeable in all other processes.

“It’s this idea that we’re taking a look at the whole process, not just [one] piece,” Reardon said. “It’s very multi-disciplined.”

Reardon said students are enthusiastic to work with all aspects of the biofuels industry.

“The fact that there’s this kind of cross-training emphasis within the program, I think, is going to turn out a new generation of experts on biofuels,” Paustian said.

Paustian added that because the study of biofuels is so complex, the program benefits future scientists because its multi-faceted design allows for a complete range of study, rather than a narrowed area of focus.

According to Leach, a bioagricultural sciences and pest management professor, the program will seek highly motivated student to bear the workload of this project.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a strain,” Leach said.

CSU’s program will most likely be researching cellulosic biofuels coming from rice stalks and perennial crops like grasses, which contain much more energy and use the entire plant body.

Rice will be the model for their biofuel research, Leach said, and will aid them in unlocking the biofuel processes for other plants.

“People like the idea of using rice for this because we know a lot about it already,” Leach said.

Reardon heeds that biofuels must be economically sustainable along with being environmentally friendly and insists that research must be done to ensure eco-sustainability.

The team’s research aims to ensure that biofuels are used responsibly in the economic sense; the team is also aware, however, that their findings must be cost-effective for the eventual consumer.

“In the end, no company is going to do something at a loss,” Reardon said. “Companies are in the business to making money.”

Senior Reporter Johnny Hart can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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