Passersby can’t help but notice the 12-foot tall corn growing in front of The NCERC at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s University Park. SIUE students are working the “Feedstock Diversity Showcase” that features not only corn, but also grain sorghum and sweet sorghum. These three feedstocks represent conventional biofuels production, advanced biofuels production and cellulosic biofuels production.
“This is the only ‘Feedstock Diversity Showcase’ of its kind, anywhere in the world,” says John Caupert, NCERC director. “Anyone who is interested in the past, present and future of sustainable biofuels production, should stop and visit. We are always happy to demonstrate what we are doing with the Showcase, as well as the awesome work we are doing at NCERC, in order to create a cleaner, greener, sustainable future for biofuels production.”
Caupert pointed to Ida Hand, NCERC grants and contracts administrator, for making the project come to life. “Ida coordinated everything with the Showcase,” he said. “From formally laying out the plot, locating and procuring the seed, coordinating logistics of planting, and advising and guiding the students participating in the project, Ida made it happen.”
Capitalizing on a concept by Caupert and Courtney Breckenridge, NCERC director of communications and client relations, Hand reached out across campus. “NCERC has a great relationship with some of our chemistry professors, especially Bob Dixon, who is the advisor of the student group ‘From the Ground Up,” she said. “These students plant different plants around campus. So, we thought this would be a great opportunity to help the group grow. It has worked out perfectly. They are a great group of young adults and help us out tremendously!”
Hand enjoyed seeing the students learn about agriculture. “Some of the students could not believe that a tiny little seed could turn into a large, healthy plant that can feed the world and help put fuel in your gas tank,” Hand said. “One of the students even said they couldn’t believe the seeds actually came out of the ground!”
SIUE senior Catherine Akley, of St. Louis, a double major in biochemistry and fermentation science, and junior Shea Walker, of O’Fallon, started the “From the Ground Up” club in spring 2018. Their club has done the majority of the planting, watering, weeding and cultivation of the Showcase.
According to Dixon, PhD, and associate professor of chemistry in the SIUE College of Arts and Sciences, the club is dedicated to the bioeconomy as it relates to the agricultural sciences, the food and beverage sciences, and the fermentation sciences.
“The organization is dedicated to further understanding the bioeconomy, agricultural, food, beverage and fermentation sciences through community involvement projects,” Akley said. “This project just seemed to fit perfectly with our club’s mission.”
Akley described it as a unique experience, because not many people have the ability to get up close and personal with the crops from which biofuels are produced. Most consumers only see the finished products.
“I learned patience, humility, and empathy toward farmers,” Akley said. “I had no prior experience with growing crops, and I must say it is hard work! It was frustrating at times, because it was hot and weeding was a pain. It absolutely demonstrated how much effort farmers put into growing crops.”
Dixon said the group decided to initiate and participate in public displays as a way to advertise the organization and its principles. Along with the Showcase, the club also is working on a hop trellis at the SIUE Biotechnology Laboratory Incubator and the cultivation of grapes for winemaking in The Gardens at SIUE. The projects are at various stages of development with the Showcase being the most visible at this point. Funding is provided by NCERC and the Department of Chemistry.
The club plans a campus showing of “Food Evolution” with a discussion panel during the fall 2018 semester. This will be in corporation with Madison County Farm Bureau, the Madison County CARES Foundation (Agriculture in the Classroom) and the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Hand said the Showcase will become an annual event. “We plan on planting a cover crop in the winter and then next spring expanding the Feedstock Diversity Showcase,” she said.
Photo: (Upper Right) – John Caupert, director of the NCERC at SIUE, stands in front of the Feedstock Diversity Showcase.
(L-R): SIUE students Timothy Schaeffer and Catherine Akley work the Feedstock Diversity Showcase at the NCERC at SIUE with Ida Hand, NCERC grants and contracts associate, plant seeds in May 2018.