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Education Builds Bioenergy Systems

Agricultural Research Service chemist Tsung Min Kuo and technician Karen Ray convert vegetable oil into antifungal agents and other value-added bioproducts.

Agricultural Research Service chemist Tsung Min Kuo and technician Karen Ray convert vegetable oil into antifungal agents and other value-added bioproducts.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research profile.

Emerging bioenergy systems hold the promise of helping to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, increase economic prosperity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The National Renewable Fuel Standard mandates the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels be produced annually by 2022; of which 16 billion gallons must come from fuels that are not corn-based ethanol. These fuels, produced from the conversion of grasses, wood, and oilseeds and other biomass, must be produced in a sustainably and economically efficient manner. To meet this goal, USDA has developed a Bioenergy strategy, focused on research, development, education, and extension. As part of USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist series of white papers on the Department’s research portfolio, this plan aligns USDA’s biofuels research with the goals of President Obama’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future.

To transition from the use of petroleum-based fuels towards a society that meets the same needs with renewable biomass will require the next generation of bioenergy scientists. These new leaders will face issues that require multidisciplinary and innovative approaches. USDA has collaborated with universities and industries to promote the development of new bioenergy education programs.

The Northeast Bioenergy and Bioproducts Education Program, led by Cornell University, and working with 1890 Land-Grant Universities and the Ohio Bioproducts Innovation has provided nearly 5,500 hours of teacher instruction to 60 educators from grades six through undergraduate. These teachers have in turn brought in new concepts of plant growth, product development, sustainability concepts, and economic marketing to their classrooms; revitalizing the students interest in biological sciences.  One recent participant, a rural instructor of Advanced Chemistry and Physics, had 13 of her students involved in science fair projects focused on Agricultural Sciences, compared to zero interest in the topic last year.

The Placed Based Opportunities for Sustainable Outcomes and High-Hopes Program (POSOH) is led by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and the College of Menominee Nation. Participants are also focusing on a sustainable bioeconomy but also enriching their learning through the building of a cross-cultural community of supportive learners. The consortium of 27 school districts in rural Wisconsin are creatively finding solutions with their Tribal school counterparts to issues such as sustainable harvesting of biomass, improving water quality, and understanding social aspects of natural resource management. The POSOH program is increasing the opportunity for a diversity of students to participate in bio-industry internships.

Both programs are funded through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at a total investment of nearly $10 Million over the next 5 years, working to make the Secretary’s vision of a bioenergy future a reality.

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