Bioenergy education program comes to SFSC this fall

By South Florida State College | July 17, 2014

Beginning this fall, South Florida State College will offer a Bioenergy Education Program to provide students with a foundation of environmental sciences and renewable energy.  

With a rising interest in green chemistry, sustainability, and escalating oil prices, bioenergy is on the forefront of the flourishing biofuels market. Biofuels are a sustainable energy source made from organic materials or recycled oils converted into liquid fuels.

SFSC’s district of Hardee, Highlands, and DeSoto counties, has the ideal climate, soil composition, available agricultural land, local infrastructure, and potential workforce to quickly emerge as a thriving biofuel industry.

“This is a great opportunity for our community to become more involved in supplying an energy source for our state,” said Kevin Brown, dean of applied sciences and technologies at SFSC. “This program will allow students in our service district opportunities to enter the workforce in different avenues than ever have before.”  

While a number of universities provide advanced degrees in biofuels and biomass production, SFSC is focused on preparing individuals for technician positions.

SFSC’s unique Bioenergy Education Program is an establishment of a much-needed, industry-driven preparation program that addresses the bioenergy market’s progressive educational needs. The program has enhanced this transition by creating viable curriculum, training protocols, and industry support to produce an educated workforce designed to meet industry demands.

SFSC’s Biofuels Education Program offers an Associate in Science degree in Biofuels Technology and Biomass Cultivation, industry certificates, and a dual-enrollment track for high school students. The Biofuels Technology track prepares individuals to work in a biorefinery facility, and the Biomass Cultivation track prepares students to work in agricultural production of feedstock. The program will also provide ongoing continuing workforce education workshops and seminars for professionals in the biofuels industry to maintain and advance their knowledge base.

The Bioenergy Education Program through SFSC will impact the K-12 education system in several ways as well, particularly in advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content. SFSC will be the only college offering high school students such robust exposure to biofuels technologies.

In recent years, the U.S. has begun to focus on alternate sources of energy to curb its dependence on foreign providers. Central and south Florida, with its warm, moist subtropical environment, is ideal for the production of energy cane, sweet sorghum, and sugarcane—plants upon which advanced biofuel production relies. Compared to corn-based methods, they produce a higher yield per cultivated acre, incur lower production costs, and have a smaller carbon footprint. The most common types of liquid biofuels are ethanol, an alcohol made from plant biomass, and biodiesel, a combination of hydrocarbon chains with some similarities to petro diesels, but without the pollutants.

“What makes SFSC’s program so unique is that we are preparing the technicians to grow feedstocks, plants or algae that will be used for fuel production, or produce biofuels, ethanol or biodiesel, from feedstocks,” said Beth Burch, lead instructor of SFSC’s Biofuels Education Program. “Other energy-related programs may include a course or two on biofuels, but our curriculum is designed around the production of biofuels from plant or algae feedstocks.”

“This program will benefit our region by preparing the workers needed to staff the biomass growing operations and fuel production facilities,” Burch said. “The jobs pay well, help our local economy, and can have a positive impact on the environment, if developed and operated carefully. These are green-collar jobs that are future-focused, high-tech, and where one can contribute to improving society.”

In 2013, Burch was hired by SFSC to develop the innovative Biofuels Education Program.  As the program develops, she will continue to work with professionals from the biofuels and agriculture industries to determine the knowledge and skills their employees need. Burch’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in biology from Millersville University, and a master’s degree and doctorate in botany from the University of Florida.

Students in the Bioenergy Education Program will be required to complete an industry internship with businesses such as biogas generation plants, feedstock growers, or biofuels production companies. Practicum placements and internships are a key component of the program’s allowing SFSC’s students to graduate with well-honed skills and a solid work experience in the field.

After completion of the two-year program, graduates can go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in a biofuels-related field such as agricultural operations management, agricultural and biological engineering, environmental management in agriculture and natural resources, chemical engineering, natural resources, and sustainability studies.

Graduates of the program will have a broad understanding of biomass-generated energy and the tools, skills, and knowledge needed to begin their bioenergy careers. They will qualify for numerous positions within the industry such as plant technician, plant operations manager, lab technician, agriculture equipment specialists, sales manager, process coordinator, agriculture operations, or business owner.

“This program will help maintain the connection to agriculture in our region that has been so significant for many decades,” Burch said. “Growing biomass for fuels production may provide a viable alternative for citrus growers, who are facing huge challenges due to greening.” 

The Bioenergy Education Program was funded by a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2012. SFSC is one of a small number of community and state colleges across the United States to have been awarded an NSF grant. NSF grants are highly competitive and typically awarded to research facilities. Created by the U.S. Congress in 1950, the NSF promotes the progress of science.