We have so many challenges … energy, water, food and the environment. Working with students, it’s great to come up with ideas and a few solutions.

Deborah Sills

What do you find on rocks and ponds that needs only water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow? Algae. Professor Deborah Sills, civil and environmental engineering, is interested in the ongoing effort to obtain biofuels from what at first glance seem like simple organisms.

Sills' research centers on sustainable production of bioenergy and bioproducts. By using lab studies and lifecycle assessment models, she measures the environmental performance of biomass conversion processes.

Sills and her collaborators are examining what the algae system would look like when environmental impact is minimized or when revenue is maximized. "One thing that might make it a bit more practical is that it has to be coupled with something like wastewater treatment or perhaps agriculture waste treatment – both to make it more cost effective and reduce the environmental impact. We need to think outside the box to make it work," Sills says. "There needs to be improvements on the biology, and at every step of the algae-to-fuel conversion process."

Sills has her students tackle some of the environmental issues she studies in the course Introduction to Environmental Engineering. She enjoys the crossdisciplinary nature of her work, which draws on mathematics, fluid mechanics, biology and chemistry.

"We have so many challenges: energy, water, food and the environment," says Sills. "Working with students, it's great to come up with ideas and a few solutions. And it makes me happy that Bucknell has so many hands-on opportunities for undergrads." 

Posted October 10, 2013