Solving the energy crisis has been the topic of conversation for consumers, researchers and politicians alike, particularly since the price of oil reached $100 a barrel earlier this month.
Deriving energy from plants and organic materials — a practice known as bioenergy production — has been praised as a viable way to decrease worldwide dependence on fossil fuels.
This spring, Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) professor Xuejun Pan is teaching the first course on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus that provides a close-up view of the entire biorefining lifecycle, called "Biorefining: Energy and Products from Renewable Resources."
"Bioenergy, biorefining and the so-called bioindustry is very hot, not only on this campus, but around the country and around the world," says Pan.
Realizing that the bioindustry will be critically important in coming years, the Department of Biological Systems Engineering has begun to hire new faculty members such as Pan to initiate research and create courses in this area.
BSE 375 will be divided into five core sections: Introduction to Biomass, Biomass Production and Processing, Energy and Fuels from Biomass, Commodity Chemicals from Biomass and Materials from Biomass.
"Biomass conversion is not a new idea," Pan says, "but a renewed one."
"After the first oil crisis 30 years ago, people realized the importance of biomass in obtaining not only fuel and energy, but chemicals and material from this renewable resource," he adds.
At this stage of development, people — in particular the younger generation — know that energy can be extracted from plant matter to make fuels, "but they don't have the details," says Pan. His course will begin to fill this knowledge gap, covering the entire spectrum of biorefining — from plant to fuel to byproduct.
Students will explore the photosynthetic process, learn about the production of a variety of biomass feedstocks, including dedicated energy crops, and they'll hear from guest lecturers about state-of-the-art biomass harvesting and processing techniques.
Once they've studied biomass feedstocks, students will learn about the conversion of biomass into energy sources that can be used to heat homes and provide electricity or conversion into liquid fuels that can be used for transportation. Pan will show students how the bioeconomy could provide chemicals and materials as well as natural fibers to replace petroleum products and discuss the ecological and economic sustainability of the bioeconomy.
Distinguished experts will be invited as guest lecturers including colleagues in Biological Systems Engineering, researchers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dairy Forage Research Center as well as the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory. Pan hopes that this course will give students the tools to get ready for the coming bioindustry, pursue future bioenergy research or enroll in more advanced courses as they become available.