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Harnessing Renewable Energy with Sustainable Bioenergy

How far from home would you travel in pursuit of your educational goals? Would nearly two days of travel and a 16 hour flight from Asia to America sound about right? It did to Sunil Thapa, the first graduate student admitted to the newly established Master of Science in Sustainable Energy program at Eastern Illinois University, and he is making the most of his experience.

Sunil, 29, grew-up in a rural community in the country of Nepal, a nation situated between India and China. Nepal hosts some of our planets most impressive natural beauty including Mount Everest and the Himalayan Mountains, which stretch across Nepal’s northern border with China, while low lying elevations along the southern border with India feature expansive savanna and grasslands. But, despite its natural splendor, Nepal lacks the crucial supply of fossil fuels upon which most nations rely for their economic development. It is this challenge that intrigued Sunil and fostered his interest in renewable energy.

“Having studied and worked on energy sectors in Nepal, I was looking for a specialized degree in energy”. Sunil learned about Eastern and the MS in Sustainable Energy program through an e-mail he received from USEF-Nepal (The United States Educational Foundation in Nepal). “I went through the course structure and available research opportunities and found it to be what I was looking for”. Sunil, who completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal, was intrigued by the research possibilities at Eastern. He contacted Dr. Peter Liu, director of the Center for Clean Energy Research and Education at EIU, and was encouraged to continue his research in the US.

“In Nepal, we don’t have fossil fuel deposits but we do have available water resources which can be tapped to generate sustainable and renewable energy in the form of hydroelectricity. Similarly, we are also rich in biomass resources. If Nepal is able to rely on energy resources available at home, we will have a prosperous energy future and energy security within the country”.

Sunil_Thapa_with_MiscanthusSunil is conducting his research under the guidance of Dr. Tom Canam, a faculty member in the EIU Biological Sciences Department. “A large amount of energy is spent on removing lignin from bioenergy crops before actual energy production. Previous studies were more focused on using lignin-cellulose degrading enzymes present in white-rot fungi to treat cellulosic biomass... [we are] ... researching on the effects of cellobiose dehydrogenase deficiet strain (m4D) of Trametes versicolor on straw of Miscanthus, which is a bioenergy crop. Similarly, we are also treating the controlled samples of Miscanthus with wild type Trametes (52J). Eventually we will prepare and test durability and calorific values of pellets prepared from these samples of Miscanthus”.

More simply, Sunil is researching natural means (such as cellobiose dehydrogenase deficiet strain (m4D) of Trametes versicolor) to modify lignin from bioenergy crops such as Miscanthus straw. Lignin is where plants store the carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) that they remove from the atmosphere as the plant grows. After several weeks of testing, the straw is dried, grinded and compressed into pellets which are tested for strength and durability. Finding ways to burn bioenergy crops more cleanly is vital for the successful development of clean energy. The future of renewable and sustainable energy is precisely what attracted Sunil to his research efforts, “….this project will further help me nourish my passion and ultimately will benefit [the] biomass industry as a whole, especially pellet industries”.

The MS in Sustainable Energy program began offering courses in the fall of 2012. A cooperative educational effort, the program is comprised of faculty from across ten different academic disciplines including the Departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Communication Studies, Economics, English, Geology/Geography, Physics and Political Science, as well as the Schools of Business and Technology. As a part of this new degree program, students have the unique opportunity to conduct a job-shadowing practicum at the campuses newly constructed Renewable Energy Center and to assist in a variety of sustainability projects underway throughout campus.

Eastern Illinois University has been instrumental in the area of renewable and sustainable energy, both production and research, with the MS in Sustainable Energy program being but one part of this initiative. Beginning nearly a decade ago, EIU began its efforts to replace an antiquated, coal-fired power plant that had been in operation since 1920. That effort came to fruition in 2011 when the Renewable Energy Center (REC) became operational, thus removing EIU’s reliance on coal for the creation of steam to heat and cool its growing campus. The REC burns natural wood pellets.

As the Renewable Energy Center came on-line, EIU also established the Center for Clean Energy Research and Education (CENCERE). Aided by a grant from the Charleston Area Charitable Foundation, CENCERE recently broke ground on a 5,000 square foot research facility adjacent to the Renewable Energy Center. When completed, the new CENCERE research building will offer a single location for hosting the variety of student research efforts underway in labs across EIU’s campus. Future plans call for an “idea incubator” where area start-up businesses focused on clean energy can receive specialized attention and support. The new research center will also offer area school children a place to see how clean energy research will impact their futures.

The future of clean energy, especially its impact on Nepal, isn’t lost on Sunil, “A large chunk of money the country [Nepal] is spending on buying fossil fuels will be saved and could be used on other development sectors. An important step for energy independence and ultimately solid economic growth will be achieved by harnessing the renewable energy”.

Sunil is encouraged by Eastern’s commitment to clean energy research and he see’s great potential in the exploration of other renewable energy sources besides biomass crops, such as wind, solar and bio ethanol, “These areas also have potential to serve as major sustainable energy sources”.   Eastern plans to include solar test panels and a wind turbine as part of the CENCERE research facility.

Sunil is grateful for the opportunity to study and pursue his research in the US, but he admits that being away from home has some challenges, “In the beginning, to some extent, language and difference in the culture create challenge. Well, missing family during festivals and important occasions definitely makes me feel that I am in the United States”. This included missing his sister’s recent wedding ceremony.

Following his completion of the MS in Sustainable Energy program, Sunil plans to continue his education in the United States by pursing a doctoral degree. His long-term ambitions include teaching within higher education and research in the area of sustainable and renewable energy.