Collaborative project to promote sustainable energy for USDA
Left to right: Industrial engineering professor Hansuk Sohn, agricultural economics professor Ram Acharya, industrial engineering professor Delia Valles-Rosales, civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan, and civil engineering graduate student Yalini Arudcheluam, examine a prototype of a photobioreactor inside Khandan’s laboratory. The professors and their students are collaborating on an interdisciplinary project aimed at improving efficiency of algae fuel production. (NMSU photo)
A $3.2 million grant awarded to four universities has New Mexico State University’s College of Engineering and College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences collaborating with three other institutions to promote sustainable energy for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The University of Texas at El Paso is the lead institution for the multi-university project entitled BGREEN (Building Regional Energy and Educational Alliances). Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Texas State University-San Marcos are also included in the grant.
The goal of the project is to create a collaborative network of sustainable energy researchers, educators, USDA agencies, and non-profit organizations to coordinate efforts and increase educational and post-graduation opportunities for Hispanic students pursuing careers contributing to sustainable energy and agriculture research.
NMSU has received $780,000 for its contribution to the project, focused on logistics, bio-energy and bio-materials, and economics in the areas of engineering and agriculture.
Industrial engineering professor Delia J. Valles-Rosales, principal investigator for NMSU on the project, industrial engineering professor Hansuk Sohn, civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan, and agricultural economics professor Ram Acharya are collaborating on the research.
The goal of the BGREEN Project is to increase the number of U.S. citizens or permanent residents from underrepresented minorities with graduate degrees in science and engineering fields linked to the USDA mission, Valles-Rosales said.
Curriculum design and development, instruction delivery systems, student experiential learning, and student recruitment and retention are the four goals of the program.
“The main area is sustainable energy, and our role is to train students to conduct research in that area and be able to work priority areas for the USDA and its agencies,” Acharya said. “We will work as a team. Sustainable energy involves energy technology as well as the economic impact of that technology. It could involve new technology to produce new energy sources like bio-energy and how that impacts the overall economy.”
The four-year grant will support undergraduate and graduate students to advance their education in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency. This will include recruitment within the college of engineering and the college of agriculture. Students, if accepted into the program, will be co-advised by professors from both colleges and take classes specifically designed for the program that incorporate the engineering and agriculture aspects of the sustainable energy.
Each year, the project will support six undergraduate students to take the proposed courses and work on a research project. Funding will also support four undergraduate students to participate on a research project at one USDA agency. In addition, two master’s students and four doctoral students will be supported each year to conduct research and have the opportunity to continue their research at USDA-Agricultural Research Service facilities.
The NMSU team will create a formal curriculum that incorporates agriculture and engineering, and a system to recruit students into the program. Students in the program will be required to take the courses specifically designed by these four professors and conduct research focused on biofuels and biohydrogen, biodiesel, microbial fuel cells, biomaterials, and distribution and pre-processing.
“This is a multi-disciplinary project, so each one of us has a significant contribution,” Sohn said.
Khandan will develop curriculum materials and provide field experience to students in several on-going algal biodiesel research projects. Khandan is using a photobioreactor to study different species of algae at an outdoor test bed facility. His research efforts also include collaborations with industry leaders in this area and students will have opportunities to make visits to these industrial settings as well.
Acharya will provide students with knowledge in the area of agricultural economic. He will develop teaching materials on issues related to economic aspects of sustainable energy and incorporate them in a number of existing undergraduate level courses including Applied Production Economics and Marketing and Pricing Agricultural Products. He will also work to place students in summer internships at USDA facilities.
Sohn will contribute to curriculum development and educate students on biofuels, energy distribution, planning and related transportation issues. He will prepare materials and re-design an existing undergraduate and graduate level course to include materials in sustainable energy focusing on transportation. Additionally, he will coordinate efforts for evaluation and assessment of the program.
Valles-Rosales will manage all NMSU activities and coordinate with partner institutions. She also will redesign existing graduate and undergraduate-level courses on manufacturing processes to include biofuels process modeling and simulation, algae and other biomass resources plating, harvesting, and processing, life product cycle assessment, bioproduct design and manufacturing, and product degradation/reliability analysis.
Recruitment for the program will begin in spring and fall of 2014. For inquiries about the positions or to apply, email Valles-Rosales at firstname.lastname@example.org, Khandan at email@example.com, Acharya at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Sohn at email@example.com. Applications must include a two-page curriculum vitae, an official transcript, names and contact information of two references, and a cover letter stating research interests and motivations for applying.
By Lorena Sánchez