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Partnership to Prepare Biofuels Professionals


News from
University of Tennessee - Knoxville

By U of T - Knoxville Staff
March 14, 2007

New types of jobs are already appearing related to the burgeoning biofuels and biorefining industries, and the University of Tennessee is among the institutions leading the way to educate a professional workforce suited for the new industries.

Under a $500,000 USDA Higher Education Grant, UT is working with North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T to develop a new academic curriculum for master's and Ph.D. students wishing to study the technical side of biomass utilization.  Called BioSUCCEED, which stands for Bio product S ustainability, a University Cooperative Center of Excellence in Ed ucation, the schools will grant advanced degrees in biomass sciences through an innovative program that allows students to study at any of the three cooperating institutions simultaneously through distance education.  The effort also includes the development of two undergraduate courses to supplement existing degree programs.

Although the curriculum is still under development, anticipated courses include the fundamentals of biomaterials, studies of thermal conversion and biological conversion processes, and the development of solid state composites.  Additional studies of environmental and energy policies related to biomass use are also anticipated. 

The semester-long courses, including lectures and supplementary materials, will be available to instructors on the Web. The first course should be offered during the 2007 fall semester. Dr. Tim Rials, director of the UT Forest Products Center and the federal Sun Grant Initiative's Southeastern Regional Center, will manage UT's involvement in the project.  "We're excited to offer cutting-edge technology and training to highly motivated students,"he said. "The synergy of this project should be a catalyst for intensive research in needed areas such as the composition and characterization of biomass and in studies of chemical and biological processes used to convert biomass to useful products.  These new technologies are needed to propel the new biobased economy."

Rials says there will also be opportunities for students to participate in research involving the economics and the environmental impacts of harvesting and collecting both biomass and the industrial residues produced by biobased industries.  Biomass is a broad category of biologically produced materials including plant materials and human and industrial waste.  Biomass feedstocks are expected to be sustainable sources of energy for use in the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Project coordinators intend to make the new courses widely available. "Because the goal is supporting a new biobased economy with a qualified technical workforce, the classes will ultimately be offered to the national biomass community for customization by any institution,"said Dr. Thomas Klindt, interim dean of the UT Agricultural Experiment Station.  Klindt is among the campus administrators involved in proposing that UT operate the Southeastern Regional Sun Grant Center and he is a strong supporter of the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, a business model that proposes the development of a sustainable bioeconomy based on the production of cellulosic ethanol. 

A key component of the initiative is a pilot biorefinery available to researchers with the Experiment Station and other institutions for process and product research and development.  The Biofuels Initiative also outlines the development of other biorefineries across the state.

"If a biofuels industry is to develop and thrive, it's got to have a workforce.  The BioSUCCEED project is the first step in providing that workforce,"said Rials.