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Hands on Learning — Valuable Training for Future Bioproducts Workforce

By Betsy Fradd, Washington State University
April 2015

As the demand for bioproducts changes so does the need for a highly skilled workforce. Finding just the right mix of instruction, hands-on experience, and real-world application is the focus of the Plant Operations program at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC), which is administered in partnership with the Agriculture Center of Excellence.

Launched in the fall of 2013, the program prepares plant operators, processing technicians, and maintenance mechanics to work in facilities converting biomass into electricity, heat, transportation fuels, clean water, and high-value chemicals and products. Careers in other allied areas include solid waste management, wastewater treatment, and processing agriculture and forestry materials.

Two young men in safety goggles doing an experiment.
Diego Cruz and Tyler Green testing the conversion of triglycerides (canola/camelina oil blend) to fatty acid methyl esters (biodiesel).

“Working with biodiesel production, our Plant Operations students get a chance to work with tools and perform maintenance as they process chemicals and conduct lab testing,” said Jason Selwitz, Project Manager at the Agriculture Center of Excellence and a WWCC Energy Systems Technology instructor. “The students work with 100-gallon batch scales, use applied math and chemistry, troubleshoot, and address normal and abnormal operating conditions.”

In this two-year applied associate’s degree program, students also manage steam, anaerobic digestion, and wastewater systems. Industry representatives, through on-site tours and guest lectures, regularly speak to classes about site permitting, inspections, air quality regulations, and monitoring.

“I chose this program because alternative energy is becoming more prevalent and will continue to increase in demand,” said Tyler Green, a second year student in the Plant Operations program. “I want a career that will positively impact the things and people around me and decrease dependence on foreign oil, drilling, and fracking.”

Green has taken an array of classes including industrial safety in the workplace, bioenergy, electricity, and water issues and completed an internship at the Kennewick Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“What fascinates me the most is the huge potential for hundreds of bio-based fuels that are just now being explored,” said Green who is also the President of the Green Energy Technology Systems Club at WWCC. “We are surrounded by ‘waste’ biological material that can be converted to different types of fuel and energy and are on the brink of making big changes regarding our oil consumption. I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Students are required to do a minimum ten-week summer cooperative work experience in-between their first and second year in the program.  Field trips interspersed throughout the courses allow close observation of mechanical components including digital control systems, heat exchangers, and processing vessels. Numerous opportunities to interact with managers, plant operators, lab personnel, and maintenance mechanics are incorporated into the curriculum.

Sarah Nye doing a school project
Sarah Nye recording the temperature of a water sample to calibrate thermometers.

Sarah Nye, a first year Plant Operations student, is taking classes to get a rewarding job to support her family. “I enjoy learning and like the idea of taking things that are considered waste and making something of value out of it,” said the 45-year old Milton Freewater, Oregon resident. “I worked on a report about the POET/DSM Project Liberty plant in Iowa and found what it’s capable of making out of biomass. My mind originally imagined only biofuels but there are so many more applications to produce electricity, chemicals, soil amendment products, and animal feed.”

The Plant Operations program is launching a summer intensive, hands-on workshop series over four weeks for incumbent workers, university engineering students, and prospective WWCC students. Topics include biodiesel, steam systems, process level and flow control, fermentation, and pyrolysis.

“We are excited to have so many business and educational partners providing students with the latest information and on-site experiences,” said Selwitz. “Our workforce is going to benefit tremendously from their guidance, mentoring, and application in bioproducts and related industries.”


Learn more about the Plant Operations program at Walla Walla Community College in coordination with the Agriculture Center of Excellence: