U of Illinois students awarded BP grant to study biomass

By Matt Soberg | August 22, 2011

A $5,000 research grant was awarded to undergraduate students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by British Petroleum. The purpose of the grant is for students to learn the engineering properties of biomass. The grant was obtained through Luis Rodriguez, a professor in the department of agricultural and biological engineering.

The students will be studying specific biomass properties including texture, density, moisture content and others. “Although we know engineering properties of many materials, we need to understand how to handle biomass in a practical manner to utilize it as energy,” Rodriguez said. It is necessary for the students to learn how biomass is harvested, stored and changed, he added.

The group will first study grass resources, which tend to be regional to the university, such as miscanthus, switchgrass and prairie grasses. The research will later trend toward materials from other regions such as willow, sugarcane, poplar and other woody biomass.

The research project will take approximately one year, and the funds will be used for research equipment and presentations. With the help of the BP grant, the students will present their research in a display form at a campus open house for the agricultural and biological engineering department.

The project is being conducted in conjunction with the Energy Biosciences Institute, an industry-university partnership sponsored by BP with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Berkely. BP previously committed $500 million to the study of biofuels research and the problem with global energy production.    

Rodriguez hopes the project challenges the students to work in groups and communicate in a competitive fashion. The ultimate goal is to find students who will use the project to further their engineering education and succeed in a bionergy related career. 

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has several bioenergy related degrees, and interest in renewable and alternative energy careers is growing, according to Rodriguez.