The interns are part of the BGREEN (Building a Regional Energy and Education Network) project, a multi-university effort to produce more scientists and engineers who can develop new alternative energy sources and find ways to increase energy efficiency.
In Temple, the students are at a place that not only pioneered many of the computer modeling programs that are used by researchers and scientists worldwide but has also actively been involved with research into potential bioenergy crops like switchgrass, canola and sunflowers for decades. The Grasslands lab is housed at the Blackland Research and Extension Center, where USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), alongside Texas AgriLife Research and Extension personnel, often toil hand-in-hand on projects like the ones the interns are working on this summer.
Jim Kiniry, a research agronomist with the Agriculture Research Service said the BGREEN internships allow the students from West Texas and New Mexico to broaden their outlooks and research on biofuels.
“They’re a little bit limited in what they can do in their region,” he said. “Here, they have more opportunities to work with different bioenergy crops and get some training on things like the ALMANAC program. It gives them more options for jobs later.”
In the early days of their internship, Lynda Macias and Karla Gutierrez from the University of Texas-El Paso took their studies well beyond the classroom and the lab by driving a combine to plant cover crops. The others spent long hours in the field harvesting canola in addition to working with the computer models and state-of-the-art research equipment at the lab.
“Getting out in the fields and working is pretty cool,” said Anita Martinez, one of five engineering students from New Mexico State University. “It gives us a chance to see our work from the perspective of the people who are doing it. It’s different from being in the lab. It’s more hands-on.”
Martinez said she isn’t sure if she wants to work in the biofuels industry when she gets out of school, but NMSU industrial engineering student Fernando Fernandez has no such doubts.
“This is our future,” he said. “It’s all about sustainability. I’m very interested in working with biofuels. I think it’s a good opportunity to do something important.”
Kiniry has experimented with switchgrass as a potential biofuel for the last 20 years at the Temple lab. Rick Haney, also an ARS researcher based at GSWRL, has grown several varieties of canola at the center and has run tractors and trucks at the center on biodiesel made from the crops. The crops and the fuel both performed wonderfully, he said.
Researchers and scientists from across the country are now comparing notes on how well these and other crops do in various parts of the country. The data is fed into the ALMANAC computer model, which was developed at the Grasslands lab and is used to compile all the data into a model that predicts the outcome of a particular crop in a particular area. ALMANAC was originally developed in Temple as a crop management tool. Later, it was updated to include pasture management and is being used now to evaluate biofuel crops.
Norman Meki with Texas AgriLife Research works with Kiniry, Haney and others on the project. Meki was involved for many years with growing sugar cane and energy cane in Hawaii, a state that presented its own unique set of opportunities and challenges.
“In Hawaii, the Navy — and the state itself — has to import all of its oil, which is very expensive,” Meki said. “We looked at alternatives to sugar cane because it uses too much water. That led us to look at other bioenergy crops like energy sorghum, which produces less grain but more biomass, and energy cane, which also produces more biomass than commercial sugar cane.”
This is the second year for the BGREEN internship program. Kiniry said the interns provide a valuable assist to the biofuels program at Grasslands, which has expanded in recent years as interest has escalated; there is more than enough for everybody to do.
The University of Texas-El Paso oversees BGREEN, which is geared to increasing the educational and post graduate opportunities for Hispanic students pursuing careers related to sustainable energy. Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Texas State University and New Mexico State University also participate in the program.
The interns at the Grasslands lab this year include Martinez, Perez, Joseph Marino, Ruben Arauz, and Alain Simental from NMSU and Gutierrez, Macias and Evelyn Rios from UTEP.