Before we left, I clearly didn’t explain very well how our year in South Africa materialized since I was occasionally asked if I would be working. Although it may not be the most exciting part of being here for others, it’s still pretty cool for me. So…yes, I am working but thankfully getting a break from my normal day-to-day at NDSU.
I should start off by saying that I received a Fulbright Scholar grant. Most people know of the Fulbright program that funds students for a year of research after finishing a 4-yr degree, but the Fulbright Scholar program funds approximately 800 academic faculty and other professionals to teach and do research in countries all over the world. The broader program is named for Senator Fulbright who proposed the program which started in 1946. It funds 8,000 people every year, two-thirds of whom are foreign students and scholars who come to the US to study and learn about America. In that regard, the Fulbright program has some striking similarities to the US Peace Corps. Although Fulbright is academic in nature where Peace Corps is based on professional service, increasing mutual understanding between citizens of America and other countries is core to the mission of each.
(lots of majestic plants around Scott’s building on the Agric campus)
My Fulbright grant objectives include research and education components, and both relate to renewable energy in South Africa. On the education side, I will be teaching a Sustainable Energy module (course) next term at the University of KwaZulu Natal. There is overlap with a Biobased Energy course I teach at NDSU, but I’ll need to develop some new materials as well as think about how to frame the topics from a South African perspective. Although the goals of renewable energy development (energy security, economic development, and environmental sustainability) are similar around the world, every country has a unique set of available resources and constraints.
(Scott had fun with a guest lecture for a first year engineering design class)
That leads to my research project in the sugar industry – not the sugar beets grown in North Dakota, but sugarcane. Sugarcane is the main crop in this part of the world and is one of the crops identified as having potential use for producing biofuels like ethanol. Interestingly, South Africa has basically banned the use of the US’s favorite biofuel crop (maize or corn) because of food security concerns. Although I respect the sentiment, I don’t necessarily agree with the logic – but that’s another story. My work will involve modeling the greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol production using sugarcane – including the emissions related to farming, transportation, and processing. By starting to quantify these emissions, we can start to make an objective determination of the environmental benefits (or not) of biofuel production here. I wouldn’t want to make a statement on that at this point (that’s what the research is for) but I like the idea of moving beyond the easy green-washing that comes with all things “bio”.
(stacks of sugarcane before getting sent to the mill)
I knew little about the sugarcane industry before arriving here, so I have been working to get up to speed as quickly as possible. My colleagues have arranged visits to a sugarcane farm, a sugar mill, and the SA Sugar Research Institute…and I’m attending two sugar-related conferences with research presentations and field tours in August. I’m sure I have only scratched the surface in learning about the South African sugar industry and all of its political, social, and technical complexities – the close but sometimes tense relationship between growers and millers; the practice of burning the cane fields prior to harvest to get rid of the leafy biomass and ease harvest and juice extraction; the social dynamics surrounding large commercial farms and the grueling task of manual harvest by workers grateful to have a job; the inefficient burning of residual cane biomass at the mill to power the plant; and the implications of having a hard frost (yes, frost!) hit the growers.
(cane getting delivered to the mill)
So far it has been refreshing to step back and learn about the strengths, practices, and challenges of agricultural processing in a different part of the world. It reminds me of a favorite quote about engineering by J.M. Prausnitz at UC Berkeley: “If engineering is the application of science for human benefit then the engineer must be a student not only of the application of science, but of human benefit as well.” The longer I am in the engineering field, the more I am interested in the peripheral issues surrounding a technology rather than the technology itself. It isn’t easy to take the time to step back to take a broader look around, but it’s amazing what you see when you do.
(out for a walk with some of Scott’s colleagues and their families)