Just a quick note on a story that will be more developed in a guest post by those truly responsible. Roughly two years ago, a wonderful undergrad engineering major named Hana Fancher started work in our lab. She did everything we asked and more, but was not content to just be an assistant – she wanted to explore possible research topics of her own that might link our lab’s interests with hers in environmental engineering. Hana and PhD student Phil Taylor – now Dr. Phil Taylor! – began scheming about a look at palm oil plantations in Costa Rica, where one finds both substantial environmental concerns but also unmet potential for bioenergy generation. But of course, the path from idea to execution can be tough indeed, especially when said idea is about a system in which none of us have ever worked, in a country thousands of miles away. Not to mention the likely suspicion with which a “hey, can we come measure some stuff on your property?” request might be greeted for this kind of project. (And indeed, such suspicion was a part of the early days of the project.) Nonetheless, the two of them had a vision and weren’t to be denied.
Fast forward eighteen months. Hana and Phil, along with Nemergut Lab PhD student Terry Legg, have now completed a variety of studies looking at patterns and processes in methane loss from the waste stream of a major palm oil mill — including some exploration of how that methane might be captured to produce energy. Hana gave her first ESA talk. As is the hallmark of all great new projects, Hana, Phil and Terry have answered a few first questions, but raised many more. I suspect this work and its progeny will keep us busy for years to come.
Here are Hana and Phil about a year ago, doing some classic truck-side field biogeochemistry:
But most impressive of all? They made a difference. Here’s Phil in Costa Rica last week, standing with the manager of the palm oil operation in which they did their work:
The construction activities you see in the background? Here’s the explanation, in Phil’s words from an email earlier today:
As Hana graduates today we can all celebrate alongside her not only for her excellence in school but also in helping put science into action! I dressed up and visited Coopeagropal to see there 1.4MW biogas project. I met with Deyvid (in pic below), Coope’s Director for Envrionment and Energy, and he told me that our research directly inspired Coopeagropal to develop a anaerobic digester for energy production that would completely satisfy their mill’s electricity demand. They broke ground last month and have contracted with a german engineering firm that hopes to have it up and running by July 2013. The total project cost is 6.5 million USD and they expect a payback of 3.5 years. There is a good chance this may not have happened without Hana’s vision for the the project.
That’s right, Hana graduates today. Congratulations Hana! It’s students like you that make our jobs fun and give us all greater hope for the future.