This month, BTI educators and students from the Cascadilla School got their hands dirty exploring the potential of plants as a source of energy. Using an enzyme to break down Switchgrass tissue into sugars, students explored an important step in the process of ethanol fuel production.
Students learned that the key to ethanol production from new biomass feedstocks like Switchgrass is cellulose, a complex matrix of thousands of glucose molecules that need to be released before fermentation into ethanol. The major challenge for bio-refineries across the country is to accomplish this process in an efficient and economical way.
Finding a solution to this challenge caught the attention of many students at the Cascadilla School Science Fair. One student, 11th grader Lizhou Sha, expressed a great enthusiasm for science and noted his interest “in learning the differences between chemical treatments, like acids, and biological treatments, like enzymes, to break down the plant tissues. There are so many different methods to convert plant matter into liquid fuel, and they all seem to have pros and cons. I want to learn more about different conversion processes and figure out which is the best one.”
Some of Sha’s classmates will be investigating enzymes even further this year, in scientific research projects that they hope to present at the NY State Fair. Upon leaving the school that day BTI’s three volunteer researchers were thrilled to see students engaging in socially relevant science projects.