Watching the world economy go in search of unconventional ideas for new energy sources, Julia Foght began to see a void emerging in her students’ understanding of a little-understood technology that has roared to the forefront.
The new fuel source whose time has come is biofuels derived from the age-old process of fermenting biomass. Foght - a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences - who considers herself a petroleum microbiologist, says biofuels are set to play a big role in the world’s energy future, yet very few people understand them, and the subject was only being touched on in her industrial microbiology class.
“As the world seeks sustainable fuels and feedstocks, microbial fermentation of biomass is emerging as a viable supplement to petrochemicals,” said Foght, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “It is essential that our students, the citizens of the future, understand the principles of fermentation so as to contribute to informed debate surrounding these biological products.”
Foght, one of the first to study the role of microbes in accelerating the settling of solids and recovery of water in tailings ponds, combined a 2011 McCalla Research Professorship and a $15,000 grant from the university’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund to renovate the university’s industrial microbiology course content and build a virtual fermenter.
“The TLEF and McCalla enabled me and my team to take something that I felt had become a void in our curriculum and give students some hands-on experience with technologies they’ve previously only read about,” she said. “The whole point of the course is to give our students a chance to evaluate new technologies that are coming out, like biofuels. Are biofuels reusable? Are they feasible? Are they environmentally sound? Are they economically realistic? Having the TLEF to help develop this kind of tool is a step towards an educated citizenry.”
In retooling the course, Foght sought the guidance of David Bressler, an expert in fermentation and director of the Biorefining Conversions Network, an organization working to support provincial research communities in the areas of biorefining and biomass conversion technologies. She says she also wanted to make the class more relevant to Alberta.
“For this particular class, I wanted the students to get a feel for what is happening in Canada, in Alberta. When we lecture, so often the data we use come from the U.S.,” said Foght. “I wanted to present not only what is going on in the U.S., but also to say what the potential is for Canada and particularly Alberta.”
In creating the fermenter, named STuaRt, or Stirred Tank university of alberta Reactor training, Foght enlisted the help of chemical and materials engineering professor Dominic Sauvageau, who teaches courses on chemical reactor analysis and whose research focuses on microbial bioprocessing; her PhD student Abigail Adebusuyi; and the U of A’s Academic Information and Communication Technologies group.
The web-based application simulates a large-scale bioreactor. The vessels are used to create optimal conditions to grow bacteria or enzymes and to promote different types of fermentation. Before biofuels, fermenters have historically been used in wastewater treatment and environmental remediation. Commercially, they are used in the manufacturing of a wide array of products including pharmaceuticals and food flavouring.
Though STuaRt is just a two-dimensional simulation with a limit on the number of reactions that it churns out, Foght says outputs, which might normally take days, are relatively instant. STuaRt is available to anyone, an offer already taken up by students at NAIT, and open source, meaning more bioreactions can be coded in.
“It is interesting to be at the nexus of conventional and unconventional petroleum-based industry and the new carbohydrate-based renewable energy right here at the U of A,” said Foght. “It is very interdisciplinary—you need people on the biomass side, the ones who are growing the crops, the ones who understand agronomy, the people who understand the microbes and the people who understand the engineering of how to get the products out and how to do the processing economically. This is a happening place.”