Leaving the Planet Better, Cleaner, Now: Why Ten Years of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel Is a Milestone Worth Celebrating

Posted on March 2nd, 2020

Headshot of Don ScottAfter Deval Pandya earned a PhD from the University of Texas at Arlington, he landed a job for Shell, and later earned a seat on the prestigious World Energy Council’s Future Energy Leaders program.

Soon after graduating from Utah State University, Mike Morgan ran the laboratory at one of the largest biodiesel producers in the world.

Dan Browne, who earned a PhD from Texas A&M, launched an algae startup.

Kayla Tilton, still pursuing a Master’s of Public Health from National University, works as an Outreach Coordinator for Maine Standard Biofuels.

These are just a few examples of students impacted by the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel (NGSB). This year, we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of this special program founded by the National Biodiesel Board. We’re proud to lead this long-term investment, helping tomorrow’s scientists on their journey as they prepare to find solutions to our energy challenges.

The year 2010 was a tumultuous and uncertain time for biofuels. As biodiesel grew bigger, enjoying commercial success and favorable policies, it also became a bigger target. Biofuels found themselves under attack from opponents of renewable energy and skeptics who didn’t understand how a nascent industry like biodiesel could grow to sustainably displace increasingly large volumes of fossil fuel. Myths and misconceptions blossomed. Misinformation became a tool for those determined to thwart progress and drive headlines.

This became extremely problematic, because common misperceptions can impact the direction or conclusion of research, even in a field dedicated to debunking myths. These flawed accusations eroded enthusiastic support for biodiesel and resulted in advocacy for feedstocks and fuels that were not yet commercially viable.

That’s why the National Biodiesel Board began a concerted effort to strengthen the body of scientific data that shows what makes biodiesel the most sustainable liquid fuel on the planet. NBB also set out to mobilize the scientific community, seeking scientists who understood and would speak up on the true environmental benefits of biodiesel, like its low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we noticed many college-level students engaging in research independently. We saw an opportunity for improvement by creating a network to share information between researchers and build off what others had already accomplished or discovered. We also wanted to foster communication across different fields of research, like process technology and feedstock development. We saw opportunities to convey what the industry had learned and what the industry still needs.

From that effort, with the support of funders like the United Soybean Board, the NGSB was born. A year later, in 2011, we set up a scholarship program to help selected students attend the annual National Biodiesel Conference & Expo. Over time, the program has evolved to increase student opportunities, and today, they can present their work in a poster session and a breakout session, and attend a popular mentoring event with top biodiesel scientists from around the world.

Don Scott and Students

More than 200 students have come through this conference program. Many of them have called it “nothing short of extraordinary” for opening their eyes to real-world industry, making professional connections and determining their future career paths.

These connections could form steppingstones for their professional careers, but the relationships can also benefit the biodiesel industry. These interactions bridge technology from the lab to potential commercial reality, which benefits biodiesel producers and farmers alike. Some of the students, like Zenith Tandukar at the University of Minnesota, study Plant Breeding and Genetics. He’s hoping to further the body of research on pennycress as a cover crop. Pennycress holds great potential for soybean farmers, because if farmers can grow it successfully between cash crop growing seasons, it could provide significant soil health benefits. Most cover crops do not have cash value, but pennycress could, since it produces an oil that can be used for biodiesel production.

Supporting student scientists through NGSB also benefits soybean farmers, in the long run, because tomorrow’s scientific thought leaders gain new insights that help dispel myths about using conventional feedstocks for biodiesel production.

Tandukar, after attending the 2020 National Biodiesel Conference & Expo, said “the conference has definitely changed my views towards biodiesel…and introduced a new perspective as to how soybeans can be a sustainable feedstock due to its higher rate of energy return relative to the fossil energy needed to produce it, which is significantly higher than that of petroleum diesel.”

In all, we estimate more than 200 students have joined NGSB since 2010, from several international schools and coast-to-coast in the U.S. Members have come from Yale, Clemson, University of California at Davis, Stanford, University of Colorado, Loyola, Iowa State University and the University of Kansas, just to name a handful. Many NGSB members are already hard at work learning the ropes of processing, producing biodiesel for campus vehicles, helping to reduce the carbon footprint on campus. Others are conducting important research on everything from feedstock to process technology to carbon accounting.

“My exposure through the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel not only improved my technical understanding of biodiesel, but opened my eyes as to how important it is to look beyond the goggles of science in the nexus of energy, food and water,” Pandya says. “Having an outlook balanced by the non-technical part of the equation, like behaviors, policy and geopolitics, has set me up for success. I’m pleased to see that NGSB continues to mentor the next generation of energy leaders ten years after its inception.”

There comes a time when members of every generation must ask themselves what they want to leave behind for the next. I want to leave a beautiful earth with clear sky, clean water, and clean air – in other words, in better condition than I found it! Each generation also has the responsibility to help lift up the next, educating its members and instilling values that will drive them to pay it forward. Mentoring programs like NGSB help make that vision a reality.

I look forward to the next decade of this impactful program.

Learn more about joining NGSB.

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. His previous experiences in protecting water resources include eleven years as an Environmental Engineer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Chief of Surface Water for the Missouri Water Resources Center. He can be reached at dscott@biodiesel.org.

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