Michigan Tech Leads on Bioenergy

Visiting bioenergy researchers at Michigan Technological University
Visiting bioenergy researchers at Michigan Technological University – MTU

More than 80 researchers from across the Americas met at Michigan Technological University (MTU) as part of an international, interdisciplinary effort to discuss the bioenergy industry and its impact on society.

This extensive research opportunity is made possible by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program. It “supports international activities across all NSF supported disciplines. The primary goal of PIRE is to support high quality projects in which advances in research and education could not occur without international collaboration. PIRE seeks to catalyze a higher level of international engagement in the U.S. science and engineering community.”

Dr. Kathy Halvorsen, professor of natural resource policy at MTU, leads the PIRE research group. She recently spoke with science and technology writer, Allison Mills. “As we move forward with the project spanning six countries, I am always thinking about how are we going to be able to answer our research questions. We have to think about how we do our research so we can compare and integrate our data across the countries and disciplines.”

As energy politics and industry experience increasingly variability, researchers are concerned with exploring new avenues for power, transportation fuel, and heat. Bioenergy, in the form of forests, represents a significant opportunity for many localities to help address instability in the energy market. However, much about the industry is not understood. And while traditional uses of bioenergy– conventional wood for heat or biomass for electricity programs–are widely utilized, the wide reaching implications for local communities and economic markets are murky.

Interdisciplinary Research

The PIRE group will be looking beyond the science to the political, cultural, economic, environmental, social, and technological issues impacts of the industry; particularly the impacts of growing bioenergy sources such as oil palm, eucalyptus, and other plants.

If you’ve ever worked, in any professional capacity, with a group larger than one other person you may be experiencing uncontrollable anxiety at the notion of working with more than 80. To deal with the widely-varying research capacities required to properly discuss the full-scope ramifications of the industry, the group is broken down into subgroups to pursue their own research capabilities.

Assistant professor of chemical engineering and operations manager for MTUs Sustainable Futures Institute, Robert Handler, spoke with Mills about the struggle of being part of such a large enterprising research team. “As an interdisciplinary scientist, I have to be comfortable with the fact that I can’t assume I’ll have a working understanding of all the nitty-gritty details. You have to be able to relinquish a bit of control — but we all see the benefit in order to gain a more holistic understanding of the systems we think are important.”

Sounds of Research

Michigan Tech has uploaded audio recordings of conversations with various researchers involved in the project — check out their Soundcloud account if you’re interested in hearing them.

Sourcing: MTU

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