HOUGHTON - Local students got a sense of the spectrum of issues involved in creating biofuels during a day-long field trip to Michigan Technological University Friday.
The activities are part of a five-year National Science Foundation project in which a number of Tech faculty are involved, said Joan Chadde, education program coordinator for the Western Upper Peninsula Center for Science, Mathematics and Environmental Education.
"The question that they're addressing is whether future fuels from forests is viable in the Upper Great Lakes region," said Joan Chadde.
Daily Mining Gazette/Garrett Neese
Jeffers High School 11th-graders Michael Massie, left, and Alan Narhi talk with Michigan Technological University professor David Flaspohler during the Future Fuels From Forests field trip at Tech Friday. Topics included turning tree biomass to fuel and impacts of biofuel production techniques on biodiversity.
As part of the project, professors must do community outreach; teachers were involved in a session last year, while students from seven schools have come in over the past week.
The day touched on several disciplines, with looks at the economics of biofuels, the level of public acceptance, the technology involved and the environmental impact.
"It's just a great example of how we have to look at these questions from many different perspectives," Chadde said.
In the afternoon, David Flaspohler, a professor with the School of Forest Resources & Environmental Sciences, talked about the challenges of gearing a forest towards ethanol production while maintaining biodiversity.
Flaspohler showed students two photos. One had a stand of clumps of trees of the same species with limited underbrush, while the other had a variety of trees in a field of grass.
Students described the former as "grey and dingy" and the latter as "abundant and mixed." The site of the former picture, they said, would result in fewer wildlife species, and also make the trees more vulnerable to disease or invasive species.
If biofuels take off, Flaspohler said, "we need to be careful how we do it so it doesn't have negative consequences."
Chris Webster, also a professor at the school, cited a statistic that America takes one year to run through 175,000 years' worth of compression of biomass into fossil fuels. He asked the students the likeliood that biofuels could completely replace that load.
"Impossible," one student yelled.
Correct, he said, congratulating students for getting past some of the "early boosterism" about biofuels.
"Biofuels are basically one part of the puzzle to come up with the energy we need to operate as a society," he said.
Part of the challenge, he said, will be to make vehicles and appliances more energy-efficient.
Making liquid fuel out of wood, as was discussed earlier in the day, has its advantages, he said, as it provides a "tighter loop" of carbon, with less waste.
He concluded by passing out "tree cookies," slices of trees that allowed students to calculate the amount of the trees biomass that had been accumulated in their lifetime.
Caniesha Harris, a 12th grader at Horizons Alternative High School in Mohawk, said people from the community should have similar sessions. She was struck by the 175,000 years of biomass being used each year for fuel amount of work it takes to produce the biofuel, as well as the amount of work it takes to convert biomass into fuel.
"There's going to be such a huge process, and people around here aren't going to want to do it," she said.
James Lorenz, a 10th grader from Jeffers High School in Painesdale, liked the field trip, particularly the session with Webster then going on.
"It's pretty much what I want to do, because I know about it already," he said.
Chadde was impressed by how knowledgeable about the challenges the country faces related to alternative fuels.
"They came in asking questions, and I think they learned more questions to ask," she said.
Garrett Neese can be reached at email@example.com.