Started in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), the Bioprocessing Separations Consortium (SEPCON) was established to address the challenges posed to bring biofuels to market faster and more efficiently. Separating biomass — organic material from plants, agricultural waste and wet waste, among others — is costly and uses a lot of energy. As the demand for biofuel grows, there is a need to develop separation technologies that are cost-effective and high performing. To make that happen, outreach activities to educate and connect prospective students in new bioenergy research is imperative.
During July and August, SEPCON hosted the first Bioenergy Bridge to Career Program Workshop that joins other BETO efforts to introduce and guide undergraduate students who are interested in careers in bioenergy. Recognizing the need for a trained, diversified workforce, DOE has been engaged in promoting the workshop to underrepresented students from universities and community colleges nationwide. Lauren Valentino, the consortium’s principal investigator and an environmental engineer in Argonne’s Applied Materials division said, “These programs are important to me as a female engineer. Bringing these experiences to this audience lets them know what the possibilities are, and I want to serve as a role model for others.”
Gayle Bentley, BETO’s Technology Manager for SEPCON, agreed that “Fundamental research is really important, but I want to make a change in the near term. You can do both at a national lab, where research is focused on solving problems that affect peoples’ lives.”
“As a society we’re at the start of an energy revolution, and we need to get students inspired to be the future leaders as these new technologies start to take off.” — Meredith Brouzas, Argonne’s Institutional Partnership director
The consortium’s largest challenge is making bioenergy an economically viable alternative in advancing the science and scalability of processes that convert biomass to energy. For those who remember the iconic ‘80s film, Back to the Future, the wild haired doctor Emmett Brown, portrayed by Christopher Lloyd, had upgraded his plutonium powered time machine to one in which he could just pop waste into his time machine’s engine. What was science fiction in the ‘80s is certainly possible now, but is still extremely costly, hence the “separations” part of the consortium. Pulling the acids, alcohols and impurities out of biomass streams to create usable fuels requires large amounts of energy, not only to extract and purify, but also to then convert them to usable materials like jet fuel and biopolymers.
“People can see wind and solar in their day-to-day lives, and bioenergy is not quite at that stage of development. Moreover, it is difficult to know when bioenergy and biochemicals are being used unless someone tells you, since they are directly replacing petroleum-sourced products,” said Bentley.
Bioenergy is on the cusp of becoming a factor in sustainability, whether its fuels or materials, but it’s not quite there yet. “If you’re thinking about why biofuels are not used on every airplane and biomaterials are not on every store shelf, it’s because they are still more expensive to produce than traditional fuels and chemicals,“ said Valentino. “Making them cost competitive is one thing but doing it while reducing climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions is another. Oftentimes, the steps that contribute the most cost also contribute the most CO2.” The grant for the SEPCON that makes this workshop possible is also putting scientists from all six laboratories to work on finding solutions that are scalable and sustainable.
The workshop took place over four Fridays, with each session being led by different DOE national labs. The first workshop hosted by DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) focused on introductions to the topics of biomass, bioenergy and separations. Students were introduced to consortium scientists from across the country and NREL’s Manar Alherech gave a talk on the potential of fuels being refined. He also highlighted that biomass separations yield compounds that are useful across industries, from synthetic foods to biodegradable plastics, and much more.
The second workshop, led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Laleh Coté and Julio Jaramillo, contained a detailed breakdown of “one-pot” bioseparations and their downstream products, including an example program of 150 tons of used diapers being turned into usable products, avoiding 62 tons of CO2 in the atmosphere and 45,000 kilograms of usable raw materials collected. Following the learning block, a panel of former interns relayed their experiences at the lab, ending their message with the same encouraging advice, “Apply, apply, apply!”
The third workshop, hosted by DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), focused on the data science aspects of bioenergy work. Such efforts are diverse, including molecular dynamics, which simulate the motion and interactions of atoms and molecules. Other computational methods use machine learning to design new materials and identify solvents that can separate out the usable carbons needed for fuels. PNNL’s Jian Liu spoke to the students about how he writes code to create models that calculate process yields — an important step towards finding new ways to make bioenergy in industrial quantities. In the second half of the workshop, Michael Whetstone of ORNL led the students in an interactive machine learning exercise.
The last workshop was hosted by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory in which energy systems analyst Pahola Thathiana Benavides showed Argonne’s Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies (GREET) model. GREET is a publicly available tool used to draw large-scale inferences on the environmental impacts of different fuel options, from the moment they are sourced to the moment they are used. Later, students met with individual researchers in small groups of one to three. The workshop ended with Argonne’s University Student Program lead, Robert Schuch, discussing the ins and outs of applying for an internship program at a national lab. Those programs include the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship, the Community College Internship and at Argonne, the Seasonal Internship Program.
The workshop drew undergraduate students from around the country, representing the East Coast, Midwest and West Coast: Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado and California to name a few. There were even a few international students, from Bangladesh and Nigeria. Students were roundly appreciative of the opportunity, asking detailed questions and showing off their own knowledge to the various research teams each week.
Lily Callen, a senior chemical engineering student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), said “My favorite part was hearing from the community college internship alumni panel. We were able to hear young professionals who’d finished their internships talk about their work as well as the work they are currently doing. It was awesome to hear about all the opportunities that are available in the bioenergy world and fun to imagine where I could be in a few years.”
Martin Poulliot, a UIUC sophomore in chemical engineering said, “For me, the highlight of the workshop was the breakout room conversations with researchers. I enjoyed these conversations very much as I am considering government research as a career.”
Abbey Piatt Price, a molecular engineering student at the University of Chicago, was only recently exposed to bioenergy research this summer. She enjoyed the opening workshop introducing the various labs and felt the workshop helped to point her graduate school search in the right direction.
Inspiring students to enter the bioenergy industry is critically important, said Meridith Bruozas, Argonne’s Institutional Partnership director. “As a society we’re at the start of an energy revolution, and we need to get students inspired to be the future leaders as these new technologies start to take off.” In addition to learning about new research and technologies in the bioseparations field, students had the chance to interact and network with researchers. Students also had access to real world problems and research, as well as the people who are doing the work to help make their academic experiences come to life outside the classroom.
“In my work at BETO, I’ve seen first-hand how competitive hiring qualified people can be in these new fields. There is a huge demand right now that will only grow as the success of these industries is made clearer. Incorporating DEI in workforce development will be very important to ensure these opportunities are available for everyone. It’s super exciting to see this area grow and nothing can happen without the people,” Bentley said.
For those who missed this year’s Bioenergy Bridge to Career Workshop, the workshop will continue over the next two years. Future workshops are planned in person at Argonne and other participating labs, allowing access to the advanced machinery and scientific equipment that researchers use every day in their respective laboratories. In the meantime, each lab has numerous internship opportunities offered every year, and the DOE has an interactive career chart with valuable information.