NDSU begins BioEPIC journey

By Jerry W. Kram
From seed to harvest to factory to final product, all phases of the biomass industry are fair game for study at the Bio Energy and Product Innovation Center, part of North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D. BioEPIC offers a focus on research, education and technology for the biomass industry, said center Codirector Ken Hellevang, a professor in NDSU's Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering Department.

The program is looking at more than just biofuels. One set of projects is looking at composites of biomass-based resins and fibers, which can replace fiberglass and plastics in a multitude of applications. One project is focusing on making tiny cellulose fibers called "nanowhiskers" from wheat straw. Preliminary work indicates that manufacturing nanowhiskers could add as much as $770,000 to the bottom line of a cellulosic ethanol plant using wheat straw as a feedstock.

More than 60 faculty and staff from 15 departments and research extension centers are involved in BioEPIC, and the program is continuing to grow. NDSU is seeking candidates for a tenured faculty position in its Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering department, as well a research scientist in the same department. The research will involve evaluating biomass species for quality and quantity under different environmental and agronomic conditions to determine appropriate bioenergy crops for biofuel production, and to develop ways for farmers to add bioenergy crops to their operations.

Hellevang said the center embodies the interdisciplinary approach to biomass at NDSU. "We really come at biomass from what we call a systems approach," he said. "We are looking at everything from soil health to the production of various biomass products. We've got people involved in the harvesting and handling of biomass, and the processing of the final products."

One focus of the center will be the development of biomass-related industries in North Dakota by helping rural communities address the complicated issues surrounding this new potential industry. "We are pushing economic development to help our rural communities survive," Hellevang said. "There are local issues concerning education for these new jobs.

There are issues of creating highways that can handle moving the products in and out. There are many different interactions that will have to take place to make this industry a success."

Hellevang said the goal of the center is to create linkages among all the different strands of biomass research that is ongoing at NDSU, and provide a connection to government and industry. More information about the center and its activities is available at www.ndsu.edu/ndsu/bioopportunities.