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Biomass research at Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory

Yesterday I had the chance to visit the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory (NGPRL) in Mandan, ND, and learn about the interesting research they’re doing. My tour was given by Dr. Igathinathane (Igathi) Cannayen, Assistant Professor at North Dakota State University’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, and Cal Thorson, Technical Information Specialist for ARS NGPRL. Their facility is on the outskirts of Mandan, and the many times I’ve driven by their sign, I never gave it a second look. So it was exciting as I took the turn, drove up and over the little hill which masks their complex from the main road, and saw the complex of buildings arranged on the horizon. It was a smattering of office buildings, a big barn, and some very vintage-looking houses. The houses surprised me, but it made sense as Cal told me, very proudly, that the research facility started in 1914. So, yeah, those buildings have been around for a long time, and at one time they used to house research students.

My reason for going out there, as I told Igathi and Cal, is that I needed a crash course in biomass. And those two were the perfect pair to break it down for me. Igathi had an array of machines to test moisture conditions, thermal properties, and strength of various types of switchgrass from around the state. This information is crucial for any industry that wants to use the switchgrass to burn, compress, char, etc., to extract energy and/or products from a sustainable and efficient material. He will extensively document pretty much everything anyone would ever need to know about switchgrass. (If you want to know more, Wikipedia has a good description). This information will be peer-reviewed and scrutinized and then finally published in scientific journals. These journals can be consulted by any industry that wants to know if North Dakota can be the place to set up shop. As Igathi showed me his laboratory equipment, I imagined how great the difference must be from their methods of research in 1914 to the high-tech methods today. I was grateful that Igathi had some handy pictures and diagrams to explain things as we went along.

Cal’s tutorial was really explaining to me and showing me why this research is important. The NGPRL collaborates with a variety of different entities, and as things at the research facility have changed over time, they’ve never strayed from the goal of providing a service to the public. One thing Cal told me that really made an impression was about the high caliber of scientists that conduct research right in our own community. These scientists are renowned worldwide and collaborate with their peers in all corners of the world. They regularly present about their research in Australia, Italy, etc., to benefit North Dakota and beyond.

You may be interested in: The Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory website.

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