Writer: Kristen Sullivan
Four professors from New Mexico State University are researching different approaches to sustainable energy, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BGreen, or the Building a Regional Energy and Educational Network, consortium.
The BGreen consortium includes the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Texas State University and New Mexico State University. The main goal of the consortium is to increase the number of Hispanic students in renewable energy careers and studies. UTEP is the lead investigator of the BGreen consortium. NMSU was invited to join the consortium and BGReen by UTEP due to previous collaborations with NMSU and NMSU’s existing research in sustainable energy. Each university within BGreen has different objectives based on the interests of the professors participating.
“NMSU is working on sustainable energy in two different phases,” said Delia Valles, associate professor of industrial engineering at NMSU and the primary investigator of BGreen at NMSU. “The first phase is extracting biodiesel or bioethanol from a biomass. The second phase is developing biomaterials from biomasses.”
Nirmala Khandan, professor of civil engineering, has been working on extracting biodiesel and bioethanol from a biomass, specifically algae. Ram Acharya, associate professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business, has been focusing on the economic analysis of using biomass to convert into biofuels.
Hansuk Sohn, associate professor of industrial engineering, has been working on the transportation of biomass. Sohn’s research focuses on the optimization of routes and minimizing the time of transportation. Valles’ own research is looking at the conversion of biomass into biomaterials.
“We’ve been exploring different bioresources, such as pecan or chile plants, and the possibility of combining them with plastics in order to make composites,” Valles said. She added that the automotive industry is looking for improving fuel efficiency by producing lighter components from these composites.
The BGreen consortium also offers opportunities for student fellowships, as long as they pass the selection process. Typically, an announcement is posted and students are invited to attend a seminar explaining the BGreen consortium and the fellowship qualifications and expectations.
Students must then apply and pass the interview process, which generally takes an entire year to complete. Undergraduate students and master’s candidates are typically funded for two years, while doctoral candidates are funded for up to three years. Approximately 50 students from throughout the four institutions have been selected to participate in BGreen. Every semester, four undergraduate students, two master’s candidates and four doctoral candidates are chosen to participate.
“One of the main contributions of this project is that students are learning non-traditional concepts, specifically from the engineering side,” Valles said. “They are learning about agriculture concepts and analysis as well.”
Valles said students are working on projects directly related to USDA and their needs. This summer, four students went to Temple, Texas, where they are working with USDA research laboratories on various areas, including biofuels. As part of this opportunity, students will simulate various parameters as well as work on finding different crops capable of developing sustainable energy.
USDA funding for BGreen will end in the fall semester, but Valles said there are plans for NMSU and UTEP to continue with the consortium to develop research in sustainable energy and to apply for different grants to fund this research. Valles said the majority of the members are already submitting other proposals in order to secure grants and funding for their research.
“We plan to continue to work on the consortium even if there is no funding. We will continue to prepare proposals, attend conferences and meet at least once per semester,” Valles said.
By continuing with the consortium, students will have the opportunity to continue to learn about research methods, how to write proposals and how to present their findings at conferences. This will also allow NMSU and UTEP to continue a cooperative and close partnership.