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Monday, April 27, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Oshkosh biodigesters put students to work

By MaryBeth Matzek
During one of his classes at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Kinan Pasley heard about the three biodigesters that the college offered. A biology major, Pasley decided he wanted to see them for himself so he called about a tour.

He was blown away by what he saw and when he heard about the opportunity for UW-Oshkosh students to work at one of them. Biodigesters use bacteria to break down organic matter – whether it's cow manure or leftover food or plant products – and then captures the methane released by the bacteria as it digests the organic matter. The methane is then trapped and can be burned for heating or electricity. The leftover organic solid waste can be then sold as fertilizer or further composted.

During the past few years, the university opened three biodigesters: an urban anaerobic dry biogas system digester on campus; a small farm biogas system at a farm outside of Oshkosh; and a biogas system at Rosendale Dairy in Fond du Lac County. Each of the biodigesters is unique in its own way. For example, the Rosendale site is located at the state's largest dairy and also has an onsite learning facility while the on-campus dry biogas system was the first of its kind to be built in North America.

"I was working before in the student union, and while that was OK, I thought this was a much better fit for my major and it's providing me with hands-on skills I can use after graduation," says Pasley, who will graduate next month and plans to work at the on-campus biodigester through the summer.

Students working at the biodigester do a variety of duties, but most involve collecting data – both of what's going in and out of the biodigester.

"Getting involved with something like this will set me apart as I look for a job," Pasley says.

Besides collecting data, students also do some maintenance work at the on-campus biodigester and the two housed at the nearby farms. Nathan Ochocinski, a biology major just finishing up his first year of college, says working at the on-campus biodigester was unlike anything he had ever done before.

"It's definitely a lot different than anything I've ever done before," he says, adding that he can't believe how much food waste comes into the biodigester. "That has definitely raised my awareness about how much food gets wasted. It's definitely eye-opening."

That's the idea, adds Greg Kleinheinz, the UW-Oshkosh Viessmann Chair of Sustainable Technology/professor of environmental engineering tech. The university is making a name for itself with its biodigesters and is looking to spread the word about them.

"Biodigesters can work for farms of all sizes," he says. "Once the biodigester is up and running, they pretty much work on their own."

Main Street prize

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation selected the Miner Theater in Ladysmith as the winner for its Main Street Makeover Contest. The single-screen theater, which has been open since 1948, will receive $10,000 to help the owner make upgrades to the theater.

Owner Brian Herrick plans to restore the historic façade and lobby space and also add a second screen so the theater can show more than one movie.

"This award couldn't come at a more perfect time -- we're so excited to move forward with plans for the theater," he says. "We just saw the building and the community and fell in love -- there is so much potential here and we're happy to have a role in helping the community realize it."

The WEDC contest was designed to increase awareness of the Wisconsin Main Street Program and showcase the businesses that call these downtown areas home.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.


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