Student's "Ethanol of Appalachia" Proposal Earns 2nd Place in Ideas Showcase

photo of Wyler and presenters

­An Eastern Kentucky University student earned second place in the eighth annual Appalachian Ideas Network Showcase.

Christian Wyler, a junior pre-optometry major from Lancaster, received $1,500 after presenting his concept, “Ethanol of Appalachia.” His venture would make the plentiful source of switchgrass, which thrives on marginal land and is resistant to disease and insect invasion, more readily available to the cellulosic biorefineries of the region.

The Berea College Entrepreneurship for the Public Good program (EPG), in collaboration with the Sullivan Foundation, hosted the two-day competition in April. EKU competed against Asbury University, Berea College, Brenau University, Hampden-Sydney College and Morehead State University. The showcase is a regional entrepreneurship education initiative designed to enable Appalachian undergraduate college students to develop entrepreneurial social ventures that address local community issues. Teams of students partner with local organizations and develop an innovative, viable business concept.

“This concept interests me because the environmental movement is a pressing feature of our society,” Wyler said. “My concept would work with local farmers in order to not only provide resources and education, but help implement the crop throughout the state. Once the switchgrass is harvested it would then be our job to play ‘middle man’ between the farmer and the cellulosic biorefineries.”

Wyler’s biodiesel research dates to his high school days when he began producing biodiesel in a backyard facility. The 2009 graduate of Garrard County High School was Future Farmers of America Agribusinessman of the Year for Kentucky in 2009, and his work has received widespread media coverage.

Dr. Stephanie McSpirit, professor in EKU’s Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, said she had originally encouraged Wyler to submit a proposal for this competition based on his work in biodiesel, “but Christian was committed to going in a different direction that would directly help local farmers from the region. He had done some prior background research on switchgrass, as part of his requirements for our environmental sociology class, and was committed to the idea that now was the time to start talking with local growers and farmers about dedicating some of their more marginal lands over to switchgrass.

“For Christian, with an ensured supply of switchgrass as a feedstock, biodiesel facilities would soon follow, creating jobs and income for local farm economies that have been depressed since the tobacco buy-out of over ten years ago. Christian’s commitment to this idea came through loud and clear at the Appalachian Idea competition … and now he has $1,500 to further explore farmer readiness and willingness to make conversion over to switchgrass. His research and his funded project will be key in initiating the transition from pure research to actual implementation, application and economic development within the area of biofuels. It’s exciting to watch him continue to take a lead role in the sector of renewable and alternative energy because the commonwealth and our nation need young people, university students, like Christian Wyler, to take the lead in finding solutions for our energy future.”

EKU’s Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies (CRAFT) is also a part of that future. The Center, established in 2008, is dedicated to fostering interdisciplinary research to develop a regional biofuels industry through the development and demonstration of technologies to break down biomass materials such as switchgrass into sugars useable by microorganisms that produce oil for biodiesel and JP8 jet fuel.

Dr. Alice Jones, director of the Eastern Kentucky Environmental Research Institute at EKU, said Wyler’s proposal “could help Kentucky diversify its energy production and its economy in a more sustainable way.

“A really important part of Christian’s project is the focus on the individual landowner or farmer’s point of view,” Jones said. “While switchgrass production for biofuels holds a certain promise, economically, there’s a chicken-and-egg thing going on at the moment:  with no steady supply of switchgrass, possible biofuel producers won’t build production facilities; but with no production facilities, farmers can’t risk converting valuable crop or pastureland over to switchgrass production when there’s no stable market for the crop.  

“At present, the economists working on switchgrass markets are focusing on regional, national and even international models,” Jones continued. “But the reality is that the Kentucky land most suited to switchgrass production is currently in the hands of small-scale cattle producers in the marginal lands of the outer Bluegrass and Appalachia. For a cattle farmer to take a large area of pasture out of production for the two to three years it will take to establish a switchgrass crop with no guarantees about what the value of that crop might be could literally mean losing the farm. Christian’s project will help answer some very important questions about what it will take for an individual farmer to commit to what is now a very risky choice — and that’s a very important question. If enough farmers are not willing to take that risk, then a switchgrass-based biofuels market simply will not emerge in Kentucky.”

To follow the progress of Wyler’s project, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/EthanolOfAppalachia.

Published on May 10, 2012