Janet Westpheling

Janet Westpheling, a professor of genetics at the University of Georgia, said UGA is a leader in the research of biomass fuels.

Fossil fuels are running out.

Bioenergy, or renewable energy made from biological sources could be our planet’s future sustainable energy source in a world where these fossil fuel supplies are lowering everyday.

Bioenergy Day, held Tuesday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, will teach students through hands-on exhibits how energy is generated through wood, corn and other biomass and how it could be economically feasible in the future.

“We wanted to draw attention to progress in bioenergy,” said Terry Marie Hastings, director of research communications in UGA's Office of the Vice President for Research. “Particularly by involving students and the community, we’re really excited to have all the students come and get some first hand experience in bioenergy research and I hope they really enjoy it.”

The BioEnergy Science Center is a UGA partner and one of three bioenergy research centers funded by the department of energy.

The center collaborated with the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn. to put together the “Farming for Fuels” exhibits to teach students the concepts of bioenergy.

Bioenergy Day is sponsored by UGA Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, an institute that conducts research in bioenergy by pooling UGA’s forestry, environmental science and engineering programs with its carbohydrate science, genetics and microbiology research.

But Dan Geller, who served on BSRI’s planning committee for Bioenergy Day, said the event has been a collaborative effort. The Southeast Partnership for Intergrated Biomass Supply Systems, another UGA partner, also collaborated to plan the day. IBSS works toward real-world solutions for sustainable biofuel production in the southeast United States.

“We’re looking at the entire bioenergy system," Geller said. "The faculty and the staff are going to be participating.”

Ethanol production and the use of biofuels are becoming more prevalent in modern society. Brazil, for instances, replaces around 40 percent of its gasoline needs with sugarcane ethanol. To keep up with this trend, UGA researchers have been dedicating time and money to this modern bioscience.

“Bioenergy is energy derived from biological sources,” said Janet Westpheling, a UGA professor of genetics. “In the case of the BioEnergy Science Center, it’s the use of plant biomass as a feedstock to convert that to ethanol and other forms of energy. The advantage of bioenergy is that it’s 'carbon neutral.'”

UGA faculty and volunteers will lead 234 seventh graders from Hilsman Middle School in Athens through the interactive exhibits Tuesday. They will be shown basic concepts like the carbon cycle and how biofuels can be transformed into bioenergy.

“Hilsman Middle School has a Science and Energy Team led by sixth-grade earth sciences teacher Audrey Hughes,” said Corey Holland, a seventh-grade life science teacher at Hilsman. “The team has worked tirelessly to promote and encourage recycling of paper, chip bags, water and soda bottles and many other items — and it is catching on. Students want to know how items are recycled, how they can be reused and why they should care. And like anything else, the more you learn, the more you want to know, the more you want to participate.”

Westpheling said BESC and IBSS created lesson plans that will be taught throughout the 10 exhibits to help the seventh graders and their parents learn about bioenergy and biofuels.

“These exhibits are aimed at younger kids,” Westpheling said. “But the average American has about a fifth-grade science education, so as we develop these tools to teach children, we’re also teaching adults.”

A tractor-trailer scale model wood gasifer, which turns biomass into electricity on the spot, will be at the event on the final stop of its “whistle stop tour” across the Southeast.

“Georgia is pretty much one of the best states in the country for biomass, so really it makes sense that we would be doing something like this here,” Geller said. “We just have so many trees on the ground that we can turn into energy that it’s really a great place to do it.”

Westpheling said she hopes the event brings attention to UGA’s rank as one of the leading institutions of bioenergy research.

“I think making people aware that UGA is one of the leaders in this whole area is really important for the students to know about,” she said. “We’re working very hard to make this a reality in our lifetime, to make this a sustainable source of energy for future generations.”