Biomass / Ethanol / Biodiesel Webquest

Introduction

The last energy source that we will consider is collectively represented by biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel.

Biomass is simply the weight of organic matter found in the bodies of all living organisms.  Thanks to the high-energy carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds found in carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, organisms use their biomass as a reservoir of energy to drive the metabolic reactions that keep them alive. 

Ever since primitive humans learned how to control fire, biomass in the form of wood has been used as a source of energy for heating and cooking.  For millenia, people - especially in primitive cultures - have relied on wood that grows naturally or is cultivated for energy.  More recently, people have learned that certain grasses and other herbaceous plants can be processed into pellets or briquettes. 

Ethanol is a byproduct of the fermention of one form of biomass, specifically simple sugars like glucose or fructose.  As noted in the overview presentation given on Wednesday, ethanol is an energy-rich substance that is viewed as a renewable energy, particularly as a fuel for cars and trucks.

Ethanol has been historically derived from grains like corn or from vegetative organs like sugar canes or sugar beets.  More recently, people are looking at getting sugars from the decomposition of cellulose and other non-conventional plants.  They briefly discussed their proposed process for cultivating and harvesting energy-rich plants for ethanol generating purposes.



A related form of energy is biodiesel, which is derived from chemically modified oils of plants, algae, and even animals.  Biodiesel can be used to run conventional diesel engines, which normally burn fossil fuels.  Biodiesel can also be used as a fuel to heat homes and even generate electricity.

Many people believe that biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel collectively hold great promise as viable sources of renewable alternative energy.  They believe that they can be a central components of efforts to sharply reduce use of non-renewable fossil fuels.  They envision extensive cultivation and processing of plants, and the establishment of an extensive distribution system for deploying biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel.  Those people point to countries like Brazil that use ethanol to power a large proportion of their vehicles.  Using ethanol, such countries successfully drastically reduce their dependence on oil - particularly from foreign countries.  Advocates of ethanol say that we should follow the lead of countries like Brazil if we want to reduce the undesirable effects of powering our lives with fossil fuels.  The federal govenment and many states provide subsidies and have developed other policies to promote biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel development.  Likewise, many energy companies that once focused on fossil fuels are now turning to these alternatives.

Other people are more skeptical, pointing to several problems.  First, they note that growing plants for energy puts a great deal of acreage into cultivation, and thus reducing the amount of natural lands that harbor biodiversity.  Second, they express concern over the impact that cultivating plants for energy has on cultivation for food.  They note that corn prices in particular have increased sharply due to dual demands.  Third, skeptics point to concerns that cultivating, processing, and transporting biomass are themselves energy intensive.  They assert that the energy derived from biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel requires nearly as much energy input from fossil fuels.  Finally, critics of cellulosic ethanol claim that they process is still years away from implementation because critical enzymes needed to convert cellulose into sugars are not yet commercially available.

The purpose of this webquest is to enable teams of students to learn more about biomass, ethanol and biodiesel, and determine their potential to serve as significant sources of alternative energy in the future.


Task

The teams assigned to this webquest are to review the websites listed below.  One team will address biomass and biodiesel, while the second will examine ethanol.  Students in each team are to answer the following questions:

Biomass and biodiesel
  • What evidence supports the idea that biomass and biodiesel energy can provide a significant proportion of energy demand in the future?
  • Does everybody agree with that evidence?  If not, explain.
  • Is biomass energy better developed in some geographic areas than others? Biodiesel?
    • Can production be enhanced in those areas in which it is already developed?
    • Can production be developed in areas where it is now minimally developed?
  • What are the technical impediments to development and deployment of biomass?  Biodiesel?
    • Can those impediments be overcome?
  • What modifications (if any) must be made to existing diesel engines to get them to run on biodiesel?
    • Can those impediments be overcome?
  • What environmental problems does using biomass or biodiesel for energy cause?
  • Do any laws or regulations impact the deployment of biomass or biodiesel for energy?
  • Do any state or federal policies promote biomass or biodiesel?
  • Are biomass and biodiesel truly sustainable?
Ethanol
  • What evidence supports the idea that ethanol-based energy can provide a significant proportion of energy demand in the future?
    • Corn-based ethanol
    • Cellulosic ethanol
  • Does everybody agree with that evidence?  If not, explain.
  • Is ethanol energy better developed in some geographic areas than others (separate out corn-based vs. cellulosic)?
    • Can production be enhanced in those areas in which it is already developed?
    • Can production be developed in areas where it is now minimally developed?
  • What are the technical impediments to development and deployment of corn-based and cellulosic ethanol?
  • What environmental problems does using ethanol for energy cause (separate out corn-based vs cellulosic)?  What about for biodiesel?
  • Do any laws or regulations impact the deployment of ethanol for energy?
  • Do any state or federal policies promote ethanol (separate out corn-based vs cellulosic)?
  • Is ethanol truly sustainable (separate out corn-based vs. cellulosic for ethanol)?
Process

Student teams will conduct a webquest using the following websites:

Biomass

Biodiesel

Ethanol

On 3 December, student teams assigned each topic will each give a 20-minute Powerpoint-based presentation in which they will answer the questions.

Evaluation

Students will be evaluated using the following rubric.  The grade will reflect both an individual and a team performance.

Team-based items

Item
5
3
1
Introduction
First one-two minutes clearly understandable, audience led into the objectives of the talk
First one-two minutes mostly understandable, audience should be partly prepared for objectives of the talk
First one-two minutes generally not understanable, audience not really prepared for objectives of the talk
Objectives
Clearly outlined
Presented in a general way, but one or more details confusing
Not clearly indicated
Number of bullet points addressed
4-5
3
1-2
Bullet 1
Discussion provided substantial insight into online resources, accurate presentation of information in articles, clear synthesis that goes well beyond rehashing posted information.
Discussion provided acceptable insight into online resources, presentation of information in articles generally accurate, some synthesis beyond rehashing posted information
Discussion provided superficial insight into online resources, evident inaccuracies in way that presentation of information in articles was presented, little synthesis beyond rehashing posted information
Bullet 2
See above
See above See above
Bullet 3
See above See above See above
Bullet 4 See above See above See above
Citations
Consistently and accurately provided
Mostly provided, or some inaccuracies
Generally not provided, or grossly inaccurate
Powerpoint text
Clearly legible
Mostly legible
Poorly legible
Images
All clear and appropriate A few unclear or not appropriate
Many unclear or not appropriate
Integration of Powerpoint between speakers
Well integrated
Partly integrated
Not integrated
Conclusion
Clearly executed, excellent summary of main points and synthesis
Generally well executed with acceptable summary of main points and synthesis
None or poorly executed, with unclear summary and / or no real synthesis
Length 18-21 minutes 16-18 minutes <16, >18 minute
 

Individual-based items:

Item
5
3
1
Level of contribution to overall team effort
Clearly an integral part of overall effort
Secondary level of contribution to overall effort
Minor level of contribution to overall effort
Level of knowledge about topic
Clearly excellent grasp
Generally good grasp, some minor uncertainty
Clear level of uncertainty about topic
Attitude
Upbeat, professional demeanor
Some unprofessional comments / mannerisms at times
Significant unprofessional demeanor
Audibility
Excellent
Good (minor reading or a bit too much focus on screen) Poor (too much reading or excessive focus on screen)
Rate of information delivery Excellent
Slightly too fast or too slow
Significantly too fast or too slow
Eye contact with audience
Excellent
Good
None
Diction
Excellent
Some sluring or mispronunciation of a few words
Significant sluring or mispronunciations throughout presentation


Return to Homepage for BIO/EES 105

This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. (570) 408-4758, kklemow@wilkes.edu.