Penn State

Penn State partners with German university on energy research

Tom Richard, Penn State professor of biological engineering, has studied carbon and energy cycles in Germany.
Tom Richard, Penn State professor of biological engineering, has studied carbon and energy cycles in Germany. Photo provided

Researchers at Penn State are partnering with counterparts in Germany to find new energy solutions.

Tom Richard is director of Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment, but for six months, he hasn’t been in Happy Valley. He has been in the Black Forest, working with researchers at the University of Freiburg to explore biofuels.

“The University of Freiburg and the German government and the citizenry have been really working on this for a long, long time. They actually do a lot more with biomass electricity than we do,” Richard said. “There is a lot of research going on. That was really my research program, to understand their accounting methods for carbon, and to compare and contrast to the way things are done here.”

In Germany, they have been managing their famous forests for hundreds of years.

“They include energy as a much bigger part of their portfolio. Because of the long time they have been working with it, they have managed to integrate more,” Richard said. He also noted that German management tends to incorporate forestry more seamlessly, even including the recreational uses of forests into the planning.

Meanwhile, Americans are looking to smaller plants and rotations of crops as energy sources.

“We do a lot more with energy grasses as well as woody byproducts,” Richard said.

The two countries also have their own challenges that come into their perspectives on issues.

“There is a lot more thought in the U.S. about long-term implications. There have been a number of different questions the public has raised, so we have had to think about that,” Richard said.

That includes doing green as greenly as possible sometimes.

Richard said that some of the solutions have included “finding those kind of synergies and niches for crops on agricultural land,” allowing one field to produce food in one season and energy in another. In addition to creating fuel crops in out-of-season periods, having new and different plants in the mix can actually be good for the land, doing things like enriching the soil with nitrogen or addressing disease and pest problems that can set in when the same plants are used over and over.

In addition to the science, the project is also benefiting students and researchers.

“There is a huge amount of enthusiasm,” said Richard. “We are making sure we are really getting the best ideas from all over the world but definitely from our two institutions.”

On June 10, Penn State President Eric Barron and Freiburg Rector Hans-Jochen Schiewer entered into an agreement, forming the Joint Freiburg-Penn State Centre for Collaborative Engagement.

“This agreement is a simple acknowledgment of this burgeoning and highly productive relationship among the two institutions,” Barron said in a statement. “The strong engagement of our faculty and that of Freiburg, the involvement of both research and education, the many reciprocal student exchanges between the two institutions and the enthusiastic support of the leadership of both make Freiburg one of our strongest and most valued partners.”

A number of Penn State students remain studying in Germany. Richard said a Schreyer Honors College senior will be there in the fall working on chemical energy storage powered by solar energy.

“The international collaboration is important to make sure we are moving as fast as possible,” he said, something he feels as an educator as well as a researcher. “Getting a chance to sit down with them in their laboratory and talk to their students is extremely powerful. We are taking a lot of the complexity of these international relationships and simplifying it. It allows us to really take advantage of these opportunities in much more efficient and effective ways.”