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A student conducting research in a lab.

Students in the new bio-based products major will learn how to apply engineering principles to get products, such as biodegradable plastics and renewable fuels, from plants or other organic matter.

Engineering the green revolution

By Deanne Morrison

From eNews, August 4, 2005

In the days of Paul Bunyan, trees yielded just two main products: wood and paper. Today the state that claims the legendary woodsman is poised to become a leader in the manufacture of new products from trees and other renewable resources. Minnesota's "contender" status got a boost last fall when the U's Institute of Technology (IT) introduced a new undergraduate major, bio-based products engineering.

Students in the new major, called BPE for short, will learn to apply engineering principles to derive bio-based products like biodegradable plastics, industrial chemicals, and renewable fuels from plants or other organic matter. As populations grow and resources become scarcer, demand for such products is expected to climb. By launching the program now, IT is preparing graduates who will help shape the industry and the coming revolution in renewables. IT is working with the College of Natural Resources (CNR) and its bio-based products department (formerly the Department of Wood and Paper Science) to offer the program.

"We wanted to offer potential IT students another engineering option," says Shri Ramaswamy, bio-based products department head. "Students don't usually come to CNR looking for an engineering major." Ramaswamy and CNR dean Susan Stafford are largely responsible for the new major. Ramaswamy sought to revitalize his department's paper science and engineering specialty, a field of study that has suffered in recent years (enrollment in paper engineering programs nationwide has dropped by 50 percent).

The paper science major was renamed BPE to reflect its expanded scope and interdisciplinary curriculum. "BPE is really changing the world of wood and forest products," says Stafford. "As I understand, it's the first department of its kind in the world."

Besides studying the basic properties of raw materials, BPE majors will learn how to design processes to extract value and to use existing products more efficiently. Examples include the chief constituent of plant fibers, cellulose, which can be broken down into units of glucose and then fermented to make ethanol; and plant starch, which can be converted to plastics.

"Half of Minnesota has agriculture, and half has forests," says Ramaswamy. "Students will learn how to use [both] these resources to make industrial and consumer products. It's timely because forestry and forest products account for $8 billion of the state's gross domestic product, and the governor just announced an initiative to use more ethanol. The big thing is to use renewable resources to make multiple products, not just energy or paper."

For University of Minnesota junior James Barsness, the major fits his background and tree-related career interests perfectly.

"I like BPE because we still learn the traditional uses of wood, paper, and lumber, but we're incorporating corn and hemp fiber into paper or using corn and soybeans to make ethanol or bioplastics, for example," says Barsness, who grew up in a rural area near Rochester, Minnesota.

Approximately 23 students are currently majoring in paper science and engineering at CNR. Ramaswamy expects most of them to transfer to IT because of the new program--except the seniors, who most likely would find the switch difficult so late in their college careers.

Of the 12 faculty in bio-based products, about seven or eight will teach BPE courses, giving the new students an enviable faculty-to-student ratio.

To learn more about the new major, see BPE.

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