Biological engineering class turns out innovative products

February 29, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A team of Penn State students are helping a Pennsylvania farm to reduce waste nutrients and generate energy, thanks to a course-based academic competition.

The students participated in an innovative program, called the Learning Factory, through the Biological Engineering Design (BE 466W) class. Since its inception in 1995, the Learning Factory has allowed participants to partner with companies and sponsors, bringing real-world problems to the classroom.

Teams of four to six students receive an initial budget of $1,000 from a sponsor to formally develop a product for the company. These products then are presented at the Engineering Design Showcase, where teams compete in various categories.

A six-student team finished second out of 54 teams in the People's Choice Award category at the showcase for designing an on-farm anaerobic digester for small-scale farming. The team was sponsored by Ron and Keppy Arnoldsen, who own an 11-acre farm in Huntingdon, Pa.

Team members included Biological Engineering majors Jonathan Amt (senior, Doylestown), Jason Hegedus (senior, Ruffs Dale), Brian Kelly (senior, West Chester), Tom McCarthy (senior, Spring City) and Andrew Wolos (senior, Bethel Park), and Chemical Engineering major Amanda Peak (senior, Burlington, N.J.). The Biological Engineering major is offered jointly by the College of Engineering and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The Arnoldsens were looking to save energy and recycle manure and organic waste on their farm. They also were interested in using recycled energy to power a hydroponic greenhouse, which would allow them to extend the growing season so they could provide greens to restaurants in winter months.

"We were responsible for three main components: the solar collector, gas collection and the anaerobic digester," McCarthy explained. "The goal was to put wastes and organic matter -- in this case pig manure -- into the anaerobic digester to produce usable biogas that could help offset the cost of heating fuel for the greenhouse."

With this, PEnergy was born. "We're hoping that by recycling substances like pig manure and converting it to usable energy, it will not only help reduce energy costs for the farm, but it also will help clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed," said Hegedus.

Anaerobic digesters are not always feasible for small-scale farmers, and those on larger farms cost upwards of $1 million, McCarthy pointed out. "There were no previous designs or places of reference to use as examples for some parts of the project," he said.

The students worked on the design during the fall 2011 semester, designing and building the project, as well as writing technical reports for the class.

"We put in a lot of time, some 12-hour days," said Hegedus. "But the engineering experience was very rewarding."

In the end, the students built a working digester on the farm. "We were able to work through the whole design and building process," he added. "This has definitely been good for me as a prospective engineer."

PEnergy is only one example of the projects and products that are churned up by the Biological Engineering 466W class. More than 3,000 projects have been designed and produced for nearly 300 sponsors by the Learning Factory over the years.

"The Learning Factory is a College of Engineering program that gives industry partners a great opportunity to have problems addressed by bright and enthusiastic students," said Jeffrey Catchmark, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who developed and instructs the Biological Engineering Design class.

"And it gives the students a great opportunity to get hands-on design experience and learn more about how industry challenges are solved."

  • Biological engineering major Jason Hegedus discusses an on-farm anaerobic digester for small-scale farming with Penn State President Rodney Erickson. The students participated in an innovative program, called the Learning Factory, through the Biological Engineering Design (BE 466W) class.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated March 02, 2012