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Bioenergy and Sustainable Technology lab

Sustainability and Solar Energy – My Summer Internship Experience

by Lars Bjorndal

My name is Lars Bjorndal. I am an international student from Norway and I am currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering here at the University of Florida. This summer, I participated in Dr. Wilkie’s Bioenergy and Sustainability Internship Program at the Bioenergy and Sustainable Technology Lab in the UF/IFAS Soil and Water Sciences Department. During this Florida Agricultural Experiment Station internship, I attended seminars, went on field trips, assisted in research on algae, and worked on individual research projects.

Lars Bjorndal with Dr. Ann Wilkie

Lars Bjorndal with Dr. Ann Wilkie

I have a great personal interest in sustainability, and I plan to use my degree to work with the development and implementation of sustainable energy. This internship has been very rewarding, as it has taught me a lot about sustainable concepts and practices, and how they can be implemented in our world today.

Biogas

For one of our field trips, we visited a small farm in Alachua where the Bioenergy and Sustainable Technology Lab has helped to install and operate a farm-scale biodigester. The biodigester uses the organic waste from the farm as a feedstock and produces methane gas and liquid biofertilizer. By using the biodigester, the farm has a sustainable and efficient waste treatment system which produces biogas that is used for cooking food and pasteurizing milk. The nutrients retained in the liquid digestate allow it to be used on-farm as an organic fertilizer. By substituting the electrical pump that would typically be used to mix the contents of the digester with a foot pump, the entire digester functions without the need for any electrical input. It was inspiring to see how the actual implementation of concepts and designs developed in the lab can be adapted and implemented in the real world. I believe that this type of flexibility is essential to implement systems like these in developing countries where access to resources may differ greatly from what we are used to in our labs.

biodigester

Using the foot pump on a small-farm biodigester to circulate and mix the contents.

Waste treatment

Another field trip was to the Alachua County Southwest Landfill in Archer. The landfill has been closed since 1998 but, due to the leachate that it produces, it still requires supervision and monitoring by County staff. The Bioenergy and Sustainable Technology Lab is experimenting with algae to bioremediate the landfill leachate. This was an eye-opening experience for me, as it made me understand the magnitude of the waste problem we are facing. Seeing the amount of land that now has to be used permanently for storing municipal solid waste showed me better than any classroom lecture that the waste we produce does not disappear after you put it in the trash can.

landfill

Field trips included learning about leachate monitoring at a closed landfill.

Algae

The research project I assisted with investigated the use of algae as a tool for carbon capture and utilization. The goal of the project is to find a way of reducing the CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. We have been adding CO2 into four 1000-liter raceway ponds with different algae cultures while monitoring their growth and productivity on a weekly basis in order to determine which algae culture would be the best suited for this task.

taking a sample from algae raceway pond

Collecting algae samples from the raceway ponds.

Participating in a scientific research project like this has been very insightful for me, and I have learned much about proper scientific methods for data collection, documentation, and analysis.

Individual projects: Harnessing energy from the sun

The individual projects have been one of the most exciting parts of the program. I was able to choose research questions I wanted to tackle and design my own methods for doing so.

My first project was designing and constructing a mobile solar-powered irrigation system. The system was designed as an alternative to gasoline-powered pumps and in the spirit of one of our lab mottoes, “Fossil Fuel is Fossil Thinking”. Using this solar pumping system could eliminate the risk of fuel spills and reduce CO2 emissions by displacing fossil fuel use.

solar pump

The mobile solar-powered irrigation system.

My second project was a continuation of a previous project where I was investigating the potential of solar cooking in terms of killing bacteria and preparing sanitary food and water. During the summer, I focused on designing and preparing for the construction of a solar oven prototype that I will use to conduct further experiments on reflectivity and sanitary food and water preparation during the coming academic year.

cutting metal

Cutting metal for the solar oven prototype.

The experiential learning and active engagement that the individual projects provided allowed me to develop organizational skills like rapid prototyping, component selection, construction planning, and confidence that I believe will help me in realizing other projects in the future. In doing preliminary research before selecting my projects, I gained experience reading research papers and scholarly literature reviews. Also, by regularly discussing my research progress and project milestones with Dr. Wilkie, I have learned about formulating proper hypotheses and the value of continually reviewing my project goals and timelines.

Wrapping it up

Having completed the internship, I feel that I have gained a lot of valuable insight and learned a lot about the field of sustainability. I have had a great time interning here, and I warmly recommend the program for anyone who has an interest in bioenergy or sustainability.