Associate professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering
College of Agriculture
Researcher with the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station
Nepal native Sushil Adhikari recalls times in his childhood when the only fuel available to power daily living in his Himalayan homeland was wood. He said these memories were a catalyst that led him to the study of alternative energy and to his current position as an associate professor and researcher in Auburn's Department of Biosystems Engineering. This summer, Adhikari is hosting 10 undergraduate students from universities across the United States for a 10-week program known as Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Auburn's biosystems REU allows students from schools with few or no research opportunities to learn scientific techniques, hypothesis testing and data collection and analysis related to the production of biofuels and bioproducts. When it comes to helping undergraduates understand the research behind biofuels production, Adhikari is well qualified. His current research focuses on biomass gasification and pyrolysis, and he's part of an interdisciplinary team studying how to turn pine trees into gasoline, diesel and jet fuels, an effort that could drive our nation's energy independence while creating jobs that will stimulate rural economies.
1. You grew up in Nepal and earned your bachelor's and master's degrees abroad. How have your experiences in those cultures influenced the work you are doing today?
We, agricultural and biological engineers, have grand challenges to provide enough food, water and energy with less land for an increasing population. Many of our students do not realize what life would be like without enough food, water or energy. Coming from Nepal and studying and traveling in other developed and developing countries, my stories to students are full of examples. I have seen people spend their whole morning working to get enough water for a day or to collect enough firewood to cook food for a week. This seems unreal to many of our students. Certainly, coming from Nepal, I have learned to appreciate the lifestyle we enjoy here in the United States.
2. You are working with professors from the College of Agriculture, the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences to turn pine trees into gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. Tell us more about this.
Isn't science amazing? Can a normal person believe that we can actually produce gasoline and diesel fuel from trees? This sounds surreal, but we are actually producing gasoline and diesel compounds from trees and grasses at Auburn University. Our challenge is how to reduce the cost of production and make these fuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels. Our work is a multidisciplinary effort to make gasoline cheaper than what we pay at pump right now.
3. Why is the biosystems REU program significant to you and to this university?
I am passionate about teaching and training undergraduate students, and I also believe that, as a nation, we are not producing as many Ph.D.s as we should. Through this REU program, I hope to introduce students to research and show them it can be fun. My hope is that the students might decide to continue their education beyond baccalaureate degrees. This is significant to me and to Auburn University because our mission is to provide education and skills relevant to lead in the 21st century, and the REU program does that.
4. What is your favorite part of your job?
The most exciting part of my job is sharing my little bit of knowledge with students and helping them to advance their careers. The other exciting part of my job is turning trees and grasses into gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. This is critical to reduce our dependence on foreign oils and provide employment opportunities in rural areas.
5. In 2013, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) named you the top young researcher in the nation. What do you think distinguishes you from other researchers in your field?
I was honored to be named as the 2013 New Holland Young Researcher by the ASABE. This is the highest honor given to a researcher under 40 by our professional society. I think my colleagues recognized my contribution in biofuels and bioenergy research and my devotion in training undergraduate and graduate students in the field of biomass and biofuels. This was possible because I am surrounded by very good and supportive mentors, colleagues and students.