Biosystems Engineering & Beyond for a Sustainable Future with Dr. Caye Drapcho & Dr. Terry Walker, Professors at Clemson University
Professors Dr. Caye Drapcho and Dr. Terry Walker teamed up on the Bigger Than Us podcast to tell us about the Biosystems Engineering program at Clemson University. We discussed career opportunities and sustainable practices beyond engineering, and how they “walk the walk” while encouraging students to take action in their own lives.
Biosystems Engineering & Beyond for a Sustainable Future
This transcript has been edited for brevity and readability.
What drew you to biosystems engineering?
Dr. Caye Drapcho (26:00) When I was a child and then through high school, I was always passionate about feeding the world, and saving the planet, saving the whales. That was the motto a long time ago. And I think biosystems is really the intersection of those because…everything is cyclical everything that we eat, how we produce those foods, how we discard the unused portion, it’s all integrated. So the systems part of this is what I find so fascinating. It’s like a puzzle. How can we figure out how to use everything that is a byproduct of a major bioprocess?
(33:08) One thing that we don’t just talk about, but we actually get the data and model it is the impact of environmental toxins on human health. We’re just barraged by the number of compounds that we ingest or are exposed to through our skin or through what we breathe. And a lot of these are food products.
(34:43) That was the reason I was drawn to this major is that studying about the problems is great to raise awareness, but then designing the solutions is what is needed and that’s what keeps me here and I think that’s what our students also really are focused on.
Dr. Terry Walker (27:45) I struggled in the first few years of whether I really wanted to become an engineer after I started realizing that we have that kind of power to destroy things very quickly through innovation, and that’s a lot of what we’ve done. I mean, we’ve produced a gasoline engine, and now it’s become a disaster. Extremely inefficient type of technology, luckily, I think is going to go away with electric cars coming in. But even that, you really got to watch out because we can really accelerate the demise of the world. There’s a lot of power in that, unfortunately.
So that really did start leading me towards sustainable engineering. It wasn’t really talked about much when I was going through school was very unfortunate. But it was a passion of mine. So I ended up staying in the engineering discipline to try to fight back I guess, you might say, to try to help these types of problems.
And my first experience was working with the extraction of food oils. So omega3 fatty acids, those kinds of things. And they were using hexane, which is a pretty horrible solvent. They still use that actually in the industry, but I wanted to get away from that and we actually went to carbon dioxide as a way of sustainable extraction. So that was sort of the beginning of that in my Ph.D. program, where you use supercritical fluids to try to get as involved in a biorefinery process as possible and ultimately tried to think about closing the loop on the process. So you’re not wasting not taking natural resources and then wasting them but actually getting them back into a cyclic function there. We can either really destroy the planet very quickly, or we could potentially help save it. That’s my ultimate hope.
How has student interest in biosystems engineering, biofuels and renewable fuels changed over the years?
Dr. Terry Walker (4:33) There’s been lots of changes. When I first started, there really was almost no interest. And then suddenly, around 2005 the Energy Policy Act was passed and they began to fund research in the area. In part, I think to slip in the fracking clauses as well so they could promote natural gas, and they would use renewable energy as a way to make it look good.
Unfortunately, we suffered many years of EPA violations through the fracking industry. But as far as the sustainable biofuels initiative, there was quite a bit of funding up until about 2012. A lot of that money has gone away, but it periodically comes back again.
Meanwhile, the biofuels industry has been forging forward. I’ve worked primarily in the biodiesel area, but they also the ethanol area is a very popular one. But the in the biodiesel area, even with lots of uncertainty, the companies continue to grow. So we’re actually up to about 3 billion gallons per year. We’re one of the largest producers of biodiesel in the world now. So we’re competitive with Europe.
Dr. Caye Drapcho (6:12) It’s been increasing every year. And it’s been so helpful to our morale as instructors. I recall, one of the earlier years that I taught, the whole class essentially still felt that climate change was a political hoax, if you will. They did not, you know, internalize the science or understand that the science was so valid. This was 15 years ago. And that was really a disappointing thing to encounter. It made me realize we had to work even harder to educate the students that we were recruiting into our program about this climate crisis. That largely has resolved itself.
I would say that the student body, even across disciplines at the university now understands the science behind climate change and the dire threat that it poses. So that’s been very encouraging.
What trends and efforts have you observed as interest in biosystems engineering and sustainability has increased?
Dr. Caye Drapcho (8:04) Within our program, it’s been a priority from day one. I know for Terry and me, we were able to develop a course in renewable energy that was probably the first on campus that was on sustainable renewable energy. And now there’s a variety of disciplines teaching a version with perhaps their emphasis or their strength, emphasized.
We have a large group of students interested in sustainability. So we really embed that in all of our courses in our discipline. And then throughout the university, a sustainability minor was developed. And that’s been quite popular. So I think all of those efforts coalesce to really improve the background and the awareness that the students have.
Dr. Terry Walker (9:09) We really needed to act really around 2006 when An Inconvenient Truth came out. And people became aware of Dr. James Hansen, who has been adamantly trying to get big change to take place at that point and is still very active, as well. The message has gotten across particularly with the younger generations, and The Sunrise Movement is a good example of that. Give a lot of credit to the young people that have been very politically active there. And they’re also voting.
That’s another really interesting thing. Now that the millennial generation is the largest generation in the history of humans, they are actually voting. It’s really the first time that young people voted. It’s been fairly dismal throughout our history when it comes to young people. And it’s very unfortunate because it’s their future, and they’re the ones that are going to be leading the future. So for them not to vote or get their say in there, I think is tragic.
But fortunately, really starting in 2018, I would say, they really did come out to vote for the first time. And it looks like they’re doing it again. I think it’s moving to the next generation that the Gen Z, I guess, and then there’s a Gen Alpha is coming soon. So this is an exciting period, to see them actually starting to take the lead. Because my generation has been, unfortunately, a major failure. Not really taking this seriously. And the fact that we’re the leaders at the moment, we’re generally the ones that are leading most of major government operations, and also major corporations to not be taking this extremely seriously.
How do you show students what biosystems engineering opportunities are possible in their careers?
Dr. Caye Drapcho (16:26) I teach a sophomore level class, so we have professional development is one of the explicit objectives of that class. And I have a cumulative list since 2007, when I first joined, well, it started with 2007, I joined in 2003. Of our graduates, those that chose to let me know where they had gotten employment. And I present that to our students to say, look at these great companies that are doing work in the bioprocessing area, or in the ecological engineering area. And I think that really helps let them be familiar with local opportunities or nationwide job opportunities.
And then we really focus in one of the other sophomore classes, on bringing back our alumni for invited talks. And I think that’s really helpful. One example is a student that was on one of my Creative Inquiry teams, the first year that I offered it on oyster reef restoration because that’s a global issue that we’ve over harvested our oyster reefs. And the student was on that team. Then she did that project for her senior design. And now she’s working in California for a consulting firm doing, guess what? Living shorelines on oyster reef restoration work. And, and really, it’s been so exciting to watch that progression of activities and to and to feel good about perhaps giving her that spark of interest.
What is the Creative Interest undergraduate research initiative at Clemson University?
Dr. Caye Drapcho (18:09) That’s an undergraduate research initiative that was developed under our prior provost, Dori Helms to encourage students to be involved with discovery, traditional research field activities, and really pursue projects that they’re interested in. So in our example, it’s a pass-fail course, one credit. it’s not meant to add to their burden of homework and exams. It’s meant to give them exposure to researchable questions and how we can really approach them. And to be fun, frankly, to show how interesting and engaging research can be.
Dr. Terry Walker (20:33) A lot of our students have taken this to Creative Inquiry since and many have moved on to the industry. So I have to have a shout out to Sam Wolfe, who works with you, she was a really great student who’s now clearly doing sustainable things. So this was really my hope, ultimately, with the initiation of that program.
How do you approach discussing sustainability in lifestyle as well as sustainability in careers?
Dr. Caye Drapcho (14:04) I try to frame it as what we can do now where, in addition to activism to change policy, which is extremely important…but also to really adopt the lifestyle changes that if we all adopted would have a substantial difference. And many times I think students think everything’s expensive, they’re a student, they can’t put PV panels on their dorm rooms, etc. So we really try to focus on the personal lifestyle changes that can have an impact and reducing your own carbon and ecological footprint.
The number of online tools to do those calculations has really helped students think about their own purchases, their food purchases, what they consume, what they discard how they get to and from classes, all of those really matter. And so I think that has been one tool that I’ve, and I know Terry says the same to really help students think about what they can do on an individual basis.
I try to practice what I preach. And I brag about it when it’s successful, or I make a joke about it, if it’s something that I think they might think is corny, like hanging your laundry outside on a clothesline, which I have the ability to do, because I don’t live in a subdivision that might preclude that. But I also try to talk to them about, how can we change those rules? Coal, power plants, and the pollution that is released is pretty unsightly, I don’t mind seeing a neighbor’s laundry on their line. I think that’s a good thing. So we talk about a variety from very small actions to large actions. But I think that helps relieve some frustration, also, because you can feel paralyzed by the lack of activity by institutions. And I think it’s really important for students and everybody to embrace what they can do on an individual basis.
What biofuel technologies are you most excited about?
Dr. Caye Drapcho (21:18) I have to say hydrogen gas, and that has kind of waxed and waned in terms of funding in terms of national interest in it, but it appears to be researching with more interest in it.
It’s a clean-burning biofuel. It can be produced from a variety of sustainable methods, I focus in my research lab on producing it from biological fermentation. That’s my love and my passion is anything microbial. But really, can be the electrolysis of water, cleaving of water into hydrogen gas. And oxygen has been also focused on again, as a storage fuel with the excess electricity from wind and solar. And so rather than storage in a battery, you could store hydrogen gas.
So I think that it has a lot of potential. What we’re focusing on is everything in biosystems is looking at the cycle. And so if you have waste agricultural products that are not being utilized, instead of discarding them, using the nutrients, the sugars in those foodstuffs to be converted to biofuels is what we really focus on.
Dr. Terry Walker (23:23) Solar is really doing quite well. It does need some improvement. But in general, it’s fairly cheap and the technology is there. But there is a need for storage. And we are looking at hydrogen as a way for storage of energy for our natural gas power plant, that we’re hopefully going to shift away from natural gas and go to either renewable natural gas and then use of hydrogen as a way of storage, I think is really important. And obviously sustainable forms of hydrogen production are critical for that.
The other area I think, is extremely important that is just starting to get recognition is regenerative agriculture and moving away from our factory type farming mechanisms, and also the tremendous amount of meat that people eat in this country, which is really unnatural. We’ve never evolved to eat the amount, of two or three times a day where we’re eating meat. There is a program that’s trying to get people to just cut back a one meal per day, which I think is interesting, is a good start.
It actually took me 48 years to finally become vegan after making excuse after excuse, but as far as the sustainability footprint. That is one of the most egregious is our meat consumption, particularly in the beef area.
But being able to work these systems together into a regenerative agricultural type system is really, absolutely a technology that has to happen, since we’re looking at very large amounts of our greenhouse gases that are coming from the agriculture sector in the world, and that this is another great area for the potential drawdown of carbon, too. We can very quickly pull carbon out of the atmosphere through agricultural and forestry areas since they naturally take carbon dioxide for their cycle. So bringing that back into a cycle cyclic process, that benefits us I think, is a huge part of the solution.
Do you have any words of advice for taking action to stop climate change?
Dr. Terry Walker (35:19) Everyone has the power to do something about this problem. I think a lot of people feel powerless, but they actually have quite a bit of power. In fact, for everything you do, it’s you’re in charge of it. Ultimately, what you end up doing in your life is what you decide to do. And to become active, I think, is really the critical thing that needs to happen.
Right now, we can’t wait any longer. We can’t wait around for other people to try to come up with these solutions. I think every person has to be part of the solution. And they have a lot more power than they realize.
I think the other thing is to one positive thing that’s happened is we’ve had some degrowth in population. And primarily, this is due to the education of women around the world. And this has actually been a big benefit to not using too many resources. So supporting women in this process to be able to move forward is going to be another major aspect. And we are seeing some of this happen.
But I think that my main thing is that we just take action and that we support the people that are going to move us forward. We have about seven years to do something about this. We can no longer wait, we have to all become active now.
Dr. Caye Drapcho (37:01) Ithink Terry has really nailed it, that individual action is so crucial. So he was focusing mainly on climate change and energy use. And I think that’s really within the scope of each individual’s to address.
And I would like to expand it to also our own personal health. Be aware of what you’re eating, and what you’re purchasing. Especially in the time of COVID, when we know that there are a number of health comorbidities that make you more at risk for severe disease, it seems like now is the perfect time to really take charge of your health. And that’s going to have an impact on improving the environment, too. Because if you’re consuming more vegetables and fruits that are organically produced, you’re helping yourself, but you’re also helping the environment.
So again, this individual action and the cyclical nature that everything’s interconnected, I think is what my suggestion would be to focus on that.
GreenLight SC is a way to take action at a community level.
Dr. Terry Walker (30:20) It’sa really great organization that was started by a musician, Andreas Hoffman, in New Orleans. So the actual parent company is GreenLight New Orleans. And I would highly anyone that goes to New Orleans, I would volunteer. It’s a volunteer-type organization where you can go in to change out the light bulbs in typically homes of poverty to try to reduce their energy bill. And he also moves in the area of making raised bed gardens. So you plant a raised bed garden at a house in New Orleans as well as rain barrels for collecting water, so your you recycle your water through that system as well.
It’s been a huge success. So I wanted to try to model that in South Carolina. And we actually set up a company here underneath his company in New Orleans, to try to do the same thing in the Greenville area, primarily Greenville, Anderson, Clemson area. We’ve been successful at changing out light bulbs, those types of things. I would love to move to the next level of bringing in the more the ecosystems type engineering into this.
About Dr. Caye Drapcho: Professor of Biosystems Engineering at Clemson University
Dr. Caye Drapcho is an Associate Professor in the Biosystems Engineering program at Clemson University in the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. She is the past Chair of the Clemson University Sustainability Commission. Dr. Drapcho teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate level in biological kinetics and reactor modeling, heat and mass transfer in biological systems, and sustainable engineering design. Her research focuses on modeling, design and optimization of biological reactor systems for the production of sustainable biofuels, capture and sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide using phytoplankton, and treatment of organic wastewaters. She is co-author of the textbook Biofuels Process Engineering Technology (Drapcho, Nghiem and Walker, McGraw-Hill 2008, 2020)
About Dr. Terry Walker: Professor and Graduate Student Coordinator of Biosystems Engineering at Clemson University
Dr. Terry Walker is a Professor and graduate student coordinator of Biosystems Engineering at Clemson University with over 20 years of experience in sustainable bioprocessing. He obtained his Ph.D. in Biosystems Engineering in 1997 at the University of Tennessee in cooperation with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He was an assistant professor at LSU before arriving at Clemson as an associate professor in 2002. His research focuses on biofuels and co-products from fungal and algal fermentation and bioproduct separations, publishing over 40 peer-reviewed journal articles and co-authoring a book entitled “Biofuels Engineering Process Technology” with the 2ndedition planned for release in June, 2020. With great concerns for our current global climate crisis, he strongly advocates the immediate switch to renewable energy and sustainable food systems to draw down carbon from the atmosphere in balance with the oceans. He formed Resilient Biosystems, LLC for production of biodiesel from food waste with hopes to fuel the local economy. He also helped establish GreenLight SC, an umbrella non-profit organization under GreenLight New Orleans directed by musician Andreas Hoffman that addresses energy efficiency, sustainable food and poverty through installing efficient light bulbs and building raised-bed organic gardens with rain-water capture.
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