March 1, 2012
- AgBioResearch scientist suggests new model to improve logistics of handling raw biofuels materials
- Thinking outside sustainability's box at the intersection of art and science
- AgBioResearch scientists honored with MSU Distinguished Faculty Awards
- MSU blueberries licensed in Korea
- New AgBioResearch faculty members announced
AgBioResearch scientist suggests new model to improve logistics of handling raw biofuels materials
If the increased use of biomass to produce alternative fuels is to become a reality, more attention needs to be paid to logistics – how, for example, biomass raw materials are shipped from farm to refinery, as well as the development of better ways of preparing the products for shipping.
This is a subject being tackled by Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientist Bruce Dale, and it was the topic of a symposium at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Feb. 16-20 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Dale, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, is suggesting a new model for getting the plant material to the biofuel production facility, or the biorefinery. The new model uses something called regional biomass processing depots – strategically located facilities that will process the biofuel feedstocks before they are shipped to a refinery.
“The question has become how we are going to get together thousands of tons of plant material to convert to fuels,” he said. “That’s a logistical issue which is increasingly being recognized as a key barrier.”
There are at present only five large-scale refineries in the United States that are either under construction or near completion. Eventually, Dale said, there could be as many as several hundred of them scattered across the country, each processing as much as 5,000 tons of feedstock a day.
“The depots we’re suggesting be built would process 100 to 200 tons of feedstock per day,” Dale said. “Once processed, it could be shipped much longer distances to the large-scale refineries.”
Another plus to Dale’s plan: farmers could get a piece of the action.
“There could be some economic benefit to the farmers,” he said. “They could own part of the depot and then share in some of the income from it.”
Because biomass materials are bulky and have a tendency to decompose, preparation of the materials for shipping also is an issue to be addressed.
One potential solution is a process developed by Dale known as ammonia fiber expansion, or AFEX. This involves taking the material and treating it with hot, concentrated ammonia.
“You simply remove the ammonia and run the treated material through a briquette maker to turn it into a product similar to charcoal briquettes,” he explained. “When you’re done, you have a dense, stable, storable material that’s easy to ship and convert to biofuel. The ultimate goal is that the depots would help create a better way to ship the biomass and cut down on the distance they have to be shipped.”
Thinking outside sustainability's box at the intersection of art and science
Science is about facts, but the science of sustainability also involves questions underpinned by values. So Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch environmental sociologist Thomas Dietz is asking scientists to consider how art can provoke people to consider their perceptions of sustainability.
“Good decisions about the complex issues of sustainability have to be grounded in science, but science alone isn’t sufficient to make decisions that also involve our values and ethical concerns,” said Dietz, MSU assistant vice president for environmental research and member of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “We have to think about things that aren’t usually part of our everyday routines, and challenging routine thinking has been one of the roles of art in our society.”
Dietz and Eugene Rosa, Boeing distinguished professor of environmental sociology and affiliated professor of fine arts at Washington State University, organized a symposium, “Science, Sustainability and the Arts,” on Feb. 17 as part of the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Symposium speakers were Joe Zammit-Lucia, fine art photographer; Sacha Kagan, sociologist at Leuphana University, who studies how art affects people’s understanding of sustainability; and David Maggs, classical concert pianist.
Zammit-Lucia’s large-format portraits of apes, tigers and elephants have changed perceptions of the animals, helping people see them as more familiar and less alien. Kagan’s installations, films and performance art focus on the culture of sustainability and how art can help achieve sustainability. Maggs is keenly interested in how his art can further his environmental concerns and helped create Earth to Human, an eco-travel project in Newfoundland that he also hosts.
“All the speakers are working artists who are also studying sustainability science,” Dietz explained. “We want people to realize that art doesn’t have only aesthetic worth. Art can provoke thinking and actually change people’s perceptions of the complex issues associated with sustainability science. When we’re considering questions about preserving biodiversity versus creating jobs, art can help us examine our values and have a discussion that’s broader than just scientific facts.”
Two Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientists were among 10 MSU faculty members honored with Distinguished Faculty Awards at the annual MSU Awards Convocation Feb. 14. The awards recognize outstanding tributions to education and research. The new honorees bring the number of faculty members honored since the award was established in 1952 to 491.
The AgBioResearch scientists are Amy Iezzoni, professor in the Department of Horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Robert Last, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Department of Plant Biology in the College of Natural Science.
Iezzoni joined the MSU faculty in 1981 and has distinguished herself as a researcher, plant breeder, teacher and mentor. She has dedicated her career to the study and improvement of cherries and is recognized internationally as the leading authority in cherry genetics and genomics. Iezzoni has collaborated with colleagues around the world to produce a body of literature in comparative genomics, gene mapping and quantitative trait locus identification. Her work has extended to the tart cherry industry, particularly in Eastern Europe, where she has released varieties in conjunction with Hungarian colleagues.
Iezzoni is an active participant in the Interdepartmental Graduate Program for Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology and has mentored numerous graduate students who have gone on to successful careers in academia, industry and government. She has been major professor to 13 master’s degree and nine doctoral students and has served on more than 60 master’s and doctoral committees.
In addition to her research on cherries, Iezzoni has been the driving force in establishing the $14.4 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Rosaceae genomics, genetics and breeding project to develop and implement genomic tools for the study and improvement of Rosaceae crops (apples, peaches, sweet and tart cherries, and strawberries). This project involves 10 U.S. states and eight foreign countries. Her colleagues consider her "a consistent leader with a vision of where the unique relatedness of the Rosaceae species could be exploited for scientific benefit." Iezzoni's research has resulted in authorship or co-authorship of 76 refereed publications, 20 book chapters and conference proceedings articles, and $18.5 million in competitive grant funding.
“I am honored to receive this award and thank the faculty members in the Horticulture Department for nominating me,” Iezzoni said. “Over the years, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with an incredible group of students, technicians, postdoctoral researchers, academic colleagues and industry members, and I share this award with them. My research always has been a team effort. I also want to acknowledge the very supportive environment within MSU that truly values and supports the plant sciences.”
Since joining MSU in 2004, Last has been steadily building a world-class program in plant genomics and metabolism. Last is implementing large-scale genomic and metabolomic approaches to advance discovery research on plant chloroplasts and secondary metabolism in plant trichomes, the hairs on the surface of leaves, often thought of as "chemical factories." His group discovered novel enzymes involved in chloroplast lipid metabolism and in terpene metabolism in trichomes. Before coming to MSU, Last served as the director of discovery genomics at Cereon Genomics, L.L.C. and was the program manager at the National Science Foundation.
Last has been active and successful in a number of instructional roles in and out of the traditional classroom. Most notably, he founded the annual summer research experience "Plant Genomics at MSU," in which approximately 15 undergraduate students participate in coordinated research activities with faculty, postdoctoral and graduate student mentors in their laboratories. Weekly seminars supplement plant genomics learning for these students, who present summaries of their research to the entire team at the end of the program. Last has also hosted 29 undergraduate student researchers and assistants in his laboratory during his seven years at MSU.
Last's research program is supported by two multi-million dollar, multi-investigator grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the NSF-funded Chloroplast 2010 project, MSU faculty members from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Department of Plant Biology are working together to focus on the functional analysis of several thousand nuclear genes that encode chloroplast-targeted proteins. Because Last is known for such broad and bold approaches to research, one of his supporters calls him "a master at big science."
“The MSU research community of faculty members and students creates a great environment to study plant metabolism and physiology,” Last said. “It is an honor to be recognized by such great colleagues.”
MSU blueberries licensed in Korea
A small blue orb is bringing a bit of MSU green to the southern Korean Peninsula.
Four blueberry varieties -- Draper, Liberty, Aurora and Huron – all bred by MSU AgBioResearch scientist Jim Hancock, have been sublicensed by Goodman Partners, LLC, a South Korean company, through Hortifrut, the company that holds the exclusive license on the varieties in Asia. This is the first time that MSU blueberries will be grown in Korea.
“MSU blueberries are known around the world for their quality,” said Tom Herlache, technology manager in MSU Technologies, who assisted with the sublicensing process. “The sublicensing contract establishes Goodman Partners as the only dealer of MSU blueberry varieties in Korea.”
Herlache said there have been rumors of fraudulent MSU blueberries in Korea -- varieties that were purported to be the MSU berries but weren’t -- so Goodman Partners wants to make sure everyone knows it’s the only official provider.
Draper is known for its high quality fruit that can be harvested by machine and stored for long periods of time. It also has a refreshing “snap” when first bitten. Liberty produces unusually flavorful fruit late in the season, a plus for growers when other varieties are done. Aurora is the latest fruit producer of all the varieties and stores well after picking. Huron blooms late, so it avoids damage from most early frosts, and its fruit has a complex flavor.
“I think the areas in Korea where the blueberries will be grown are similar to the growing areas in Michigan,” said Hancock, a professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture. “So they’ll be able to take advantage of the traits the same way Michigan growers do.”
Herlache explained that the university receives royalties from plant sales and that more than tens of thousands of plants are expected to be sold in South Korea each year.
“I think it will be of substantial value to MSU,” he said.
New AgBioResearch faculty members announced
AgBioResearch is pleased to welcome four new faculty members.
Robert B. Abramovitch, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, became affiliated with Michigan State University and AgBioResearch in January. His research focuses on utilizing genetic, genomic and biochemical approaches to characterize new genes and proteins that enable pathogens to survive and reproduce within host cells. He works primarily with Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis), which causes tuberculosis, a leading cause of death in humans by an infectious disease. Abramovitch is initiating research to study Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis), which causes tuberculosis in animals and humans. M. bovis is endemic in certain Michigan deer populations and poses a threat to both agriculture and public health. Abramovitch’s lab will undertake comparative studies of M. tuberculosis and M. bovis genetics, biochemistry and host-pathogen interactions with the ultimate goal of developing improved diagnostic tools and new vaccines.
Before coming to MSU, Abramovitch was a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine from 2006 to 2011. He received his doctorate in plant pathology from Cornell University in 2006 and his bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of British Columbia in 2000.
Andrew Dillon, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, became affiliated with Michigan State University and AgBioResearch in January. He is a development economist with research interests in agriculture, health and nutrition, education and labor decisions made by agricultural households, and the role of social networks in adoption decisions. Dillon is currently involved in randomized evaluations of projects in Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Ghana, Mali and Nigeria.
Before coming to MSU, Dillon was a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute from 2008 to 2011. Dillon received both his doctorate and master’s degree in applied economics and management from Cornell University in 2008 and 2007, respectively. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics and political and social thought from the University of Virginia in 1999.
Lenis Saweda Liverpool-Tasie, assistant professor of agriculture and food resource economics, joined Michigan State University and became affiliated with AgBioResearch in January. Her research focuses on differential effects of policies and poverty reduction strategies on farmer behavior and welfare. Saweda’s work includes investigating the differential effects of social networks on technology adoption by and bargaining power of households and developing strategies to improve efficient fertilizer access and use in developing countries. In previous research, she used asset poverty measures to better understand the dynamics of rural poverty and its effect on the behavior of farmers.
Before coming to MSU, Saweda was a postdoctoral fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute from 2009 to 2012. She received her doctorate in agriculture and consumer economics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2009. Saweda also received a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and a master’s degree in third world development support -- both from the University of Iowa -- in 2004, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Jos, Nigeria, in 2000.
Wei Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and the Environmental Science and Policy Program, joined Michigan State University and became affiliated with AgBioResearch in January. His research focuses on soil and water quality and sustainability, with emphasis on the movement of water, solutes (e.g., nutrients, agrochemicals and environmental toxins), and fine particles such as microorganisms, abiotic colloids and engineered nanomaterials in natural and engineered systems, particularly in unsaturated soils. The overarching goal of Zhang’s research is to promote protection of soil and water resources and sustainable agricultural production through the understanding of fundamental transport processes and scientifically sound management practices.
Before coming to MSU, Zhang held a prestigious National Research Council research associateship hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He received his doctorate in environmental engineering from Cornell University in 2010, his master’s degree in biosystems engineering from Oklahoma State University in 2006 and his bachelor’s degree in environmental chemistry from Nanjing University in 2000.