New course offers hands-on training in bioproducts

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Doctoral student Baran Arslan experienced bioproducts production processes this summer that he formerly had only seen in the lab on the nano scale.

He participated in a new summer course through Washington State University Tri-Cities that created a bioproduct from start to finish, covering topics from fermentation and pyrolysis of biomaterials to process controls and industrial maintenance.

“We’re trying to give students some insight into what happens in the real-world processes,” said Birgitte Ahring, chemical and biological systems engineering ( professor at WSU Tri-Cities.

“This is so great,” Arslan said. “It brings us to the larger job scale. It’s a great experience seeing what goes into making the biomass into bioproducts we can use every day.”

Education-industry partnership

The course, Survey of Technical Equipment for Processing (STEP), was offered through a partnership between WSU and Walla Walla Community College (WWCC).

In four sessions, students from WSU, associate degree students from WWCC and representatives from Pacific Ethanol-Columbia participated in hands-on learning at WSU Tri-Cities, WSU Pullman, the Sustainable Agriculture and Energy Center in Boardman, Ore., and WWCC.

Jason Selwitz, WWCC plant operations instructor and WSU Tri-Cities doctoral candidate, puts plant material into a machine. (Photos by Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities)

The plan is to offer industry-relevant continuing education throughout the year, said Jason Selwitz, WWCC plant operations (
plantoperations) instructor, coordinator of the course and WSU doctoral candidate.

“We were trying to tackle three things: Get undergraduate and graduate students more hands-on experience; provide continuing education to our partners in industry; and orient students new to the workforce toward training opportunities at WWCC and WSU,” he said.

WWCC students said the course provided meaningful interactions with university students and industry professionals: “There is a whole variety of experiences people have in this group and we can learn from one another,” said Ryan Christenson.

Industry, new workforce training

Jackie Putman, lab lead at Pacific Ethanol-Columbia, said it was interesting to see different ways of working.

“We’re all pretty up-to-date on the processes, but it is interesting to learn new concepts and procedures and see if we can take anything back to use at Pacific Ethanol in the future,” she said.

The program is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and is administered through the University of Washington’s Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest initiative (AHB).

Selwitz said through the WWCC plant operations program, graduates develop a suite of skills in demand by several industries in the region.

“If we can train our workforce for more than one industry, our students have options,” he said. “These jobs start at $20 per hour, plus benefits, and lead directly to careers – many of which are found in rural areas.”