Skip to main content
Close Search

Details of Grant

USDA Undergraduate Fellowship:

Impact of Biochar on Lifecycles of Agricultural Chemicals and Interactions between Plants and Soil Microorganisms


Biochar, a co-product of thermochemical bioenergy generation (e.g. pyrolysis and gasification), has a broad variety of applications in agriculture. It can amend and improve soil properties by changing the microbial profile and metabolism, enhance plant nutrient uptake, minimize herbicide, pesticides and nutrients leaking, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from soil. Despite the important roles of biochar in agriculture, no program has focused on integrating laboratory and field research with education training in this emerging multidisciplinary science and engineering area.

The goal of this project is to establish a summer undergraduate fellowship program to train 30 undergraduates in an interdisciplinary environment in basic and applied research of biochar related to agricultural applications. The students’ fellowship projects will be designed to 1) establish the extension and outreach activities for enhance interaction among students, faculties and farmers, 2) training undergraduate with hands-on experience of innovative sustainable bioenergy and agriculture science and engineering tools, 3) the research activities of students is to understand the mechanisms of biochar modification of the lifecycle of agricultural chemicals; and the biochar–soil microbial profile–plant interactions. This fellowship will focus on attracting more undergraduate students to continue their graduate study in an area of Sustainable Bioenergy, Water Resources, Natural Resources, and Environment. Every year, 10 undergraduates (at least 7 students from external institutions) will be recruited in Spring semester during the 3 project years. We will make an effort to particularly attract students from underrepresented minorities to work in the program. Over the summer months, every undergraduate fellow will work with one faculty mentor and graduates in different research groups, as well as be exposed to laboratory and field research projects related to: 1) biochar production, 2) biochar modification and characterization, 3) physical adsorption /desorption of nutrients e.g. nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other agricultural chemicals on biochar in soil, 4) biochar’s impact on the microbial profile and metabolism in the soil, 5) biochar application to improve fertilizer efficiency and minimize the discharge of herbicide and pesticides into agricultural water systems, and 6) evaluate impact of biochar application on crops growth with precision agricultural tools. The students will also learn the following techniques: 1) experimental design and statistical data analysis; 2) state-of-the-arts analysis methods; 3) installation of sensors and collecting data from greenhouse and field-scale tests. Furthermore, all undergraduates and their mentors will be encouraged to publish and present their research results in peer reviewed journals and conferences respectively.

Table 1. List of faculty participants (mentors)

Agri. & Biosystems Eng. (ABE)ZR Gu*, K Muthukumarappan, C. Hay, L. Wei, D. Humburg, L Ahiablame (Africa American), A Franzen
Electrical Eng. (EE)SX Tan*, Q Fan
Biology & Microbiology (BMB)H Bücking (Female)*, W Gibbons
Plant Science (Plant)S. Clay (Female), S. Kumar
Civil & Environ. Eng. (CEE)GH Hua
Chemistry & Biochemistry (CBC)D Raynie

* PIs and primary mentors of the project

South Dakota State University (SDSU) is particularly well equipped to offer this multidisciplinary undergraduate fellowship program due to its long successful records in bioenergy research since 1978, and especially successful research projects of biochar application in soil (NIFA 2011-67009-30076) and upgrading of biochar to advanced carbon materials (NIFA 2011-67009-20030). Currently all 15 faculty mentors (Table 1) from 6 departments are actively involved in biochar and bioenergy related research, as well as obtained more than $ 12 million in federal funding to support research in sustainable bioenergy.

Furthermore, after ending of the proposed project, this summer multidisciplinary undergraduate fellowship will be continually supported through the State-funded biomaterials and biorefinery program and other external funded research projects.


SDSU has a long history in bioenergy research, especially in research areas related to biochar, including preparation, characterization, upgrading and applications. SDSU also has multiple current undergraduate research learning programs, such as NSF-REU in Bioenergy, NSF-REU in Mathematics. SDSU also extends its education and research programs to all regions of the state, including 7 agriculture experiment research stations, 6 research farms (19,500 acres of range and cropland) and 8 regional extension centers and 3 tribal extension offices. Furthermore, SDSU’s Office of Disability Services (ODS) collaborates with students, faculty, and staff across the University community to create usable, equitable, inclusive and sustainable learning environments. In addition, SDSU has established several programs by e.g. providing scholarships for Native American and minority students. SDSU has also established collaboration programs with several Tribal colleges such as Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University. Furthermore, SDSU has also established an early and intensive college preparatory program for Native American high school students through collaboration with Flandreau Indian School (FIS), which has served well over 1,000 American Indian students, many of whom have continued their higher education at Tribal colleges, SDSU, and other universities throughout the state and nation.

In this proposed project, the Undergraduate Fellowship links 6 different departments (Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Biology and Microbiology, Plant Science, Electrical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemistry and Biochemistry) and will give students the opportunity of unique interdisciplinary research experiences on biochar preparation, modification, characterization, as well as applications in soil amendment and other sustainable agricultural areas. All faculty mentors have active research related to the proposed programs and have experience in mentoring undergraduate students.

Dr. Zhengrong Gu (PI, Associate Professor ABE) Dr. Gu works on innovative biochar derivate advanced carbon materials, separation of biofuels and value added bioproducts, advanced catalysis of biorefinery and environmental remediation. He has mentored six undergraduate students and one high school student in his laboratory (after joined SDSU in 2009), including 3 females, 2 Africa Americans and 1 American Vietnamese students. One peer reviewed articles partially based on undergraduates’ work has been published [1], while Ms. Han V is co-author of an article accepted (in press) [2]. In addition, undergraduate research projects of his Lab. have been given in more than 20 presentations at regional or national meetings.

Dr. Heike Bücking (Co-PI, Professor in Bio/Micro) joined SDSU in 2009. She is committed to undergraduate student research and established and coordinated the first REU site at her previous position in Rutgers Camden. Her research interests are the regulation of exchange processes in mycorrhizal interactions and the potential application of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi as bio-fertilizers in sustainable agriculture. Numerous undergraduate students have worked on research projects in her lab, and were co-authors on journal publications [3-4], and a former African-American REU student has joined her lab as graduate student and is now co-author on two publications[5-6] (one in Science [5]), and first author on one publication that is currently accepted and in press [7]. Two former REU students will also become co-author on another journal publication that is also currently in preparation [8]. Most of these undergraduate students belonged to underrepresented groups in the sciences (7 females, 1 Native American, 2 African American, 2 Hispanic, and 3 with Asian American background).

Dr. Tan SonXin (Co-PI, EE) Dr. S. Tan (Associate Professor in EE) have more than 11 years of experience in advising undergraduate students on various senior design projects and research projects. Three of his senior design teams won prices at the SDSU Engineering Expo (in 2015, 2014 and 2011). Dr. Tan also organized and served as the conference chair of the SDSU Senior Design Conference for all capstone projects in the College of Engineering. In this conference, students present their design projects and faculty and other students evaluate the design project based on the presentation, commercialization potential, and the technical design, etc. He was the instructor for EE senior design I and II courses for many years. He also advised two honor students, Brodric Moeller and Jordan Ulmer on their undergraduate research projects.

Dr. Qi Hua Fan has strong background in plasma science and engineering. He is the inventor of a pending patent on plasma activation of biochar. His research on high-density plasma sources is recently supported by NSF. That innovative plasma technology will strongly support this proposed project.

Dr. Kasiviswanathan Muthukumarappan (Co-PI, ABE) is a distinguished professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at South Dakota State University. He has more than 25 years of experience in biorenewable energy and bioprocess engineering. Dr. Muthukumarappan has been working in novel processing technologies such as ultrasound, ozone, extrusion processing, etc for improving the biochar characteristics and has published extensively in these areas.

Dr. Guanghui Hua (assistant professor CEE) at South Dakota State University. His research focuses on innovative processes for water and wastewater treatment. Dr. Hua has been working on developing low-cost adsorption technology to remove nutrients from agricultural drainage and stormwater since joining SDSU in 2012. He currently mentors four undergraduate research assistants on projects related to water treatment. These undergraduate students have been involved in laboratory experiments, data analysis and publications. One undergraduate student was a co-author of a poster that won a best student post award from Eastern South Dakota Water Conference in 2014.

Dr. S.A. Clay (Professor, Plant) has been working with undergraduate students in several types of research projects from laboratory to field and published three peer reviewed journal articles with these undergraduates [9-11]. Dr. S. Clay also involved in nitrate movement in deep injected manure and sampling for herbicide degradation in manure treated soils .A French undergraduate student examined antibiotic sorption to several soil types in her group.

Dr. Sandeep Kumar, (Assist. Professor, Plant Science), SDSU. Dr. Kumar joined SDSU in 2012 and is a Soil Scientist, and has experience in GIS, GHG (DAYCENT and DNDC) and Hydrologic Modeling. He has been involved in various research projects such as biochar impacts on soil quality, watershed modeling, and sustainable switchgrass production in North Central Region. He is advising 7 Graduate students and one postdoctoral researcher. He has been involved in advising 3 REU students for the past 2 years.

Dr. Doug Raynie (Research Associate Professor, CBC). He joined SDSU in 2001 and has been involved as a research mentor for REU programs in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Bioenergy, and Environmental and Green Chemistry. Additionally, he routinely has mentored undergraduate sophomores in CHEM 237, introduction to research, projects and upper division Chemistry majors in their required CHEM 498 Undergraduate Research projects.

Dr. William Gibbons (Professor, BMB) focuses on converting biomass into fuels, chemicals, and biopolymers by exploiting microbial metabolism in conventional and novel bioreactors. He has twenty-five years of experience in working with students in bioprocessing research, averaging 3 to 4 students per year. More than half of these students have come from underrepresented groups. Undergraduate researchers of his lab have given 38 presentation about their research at regional or national scientific meetings and five undergraduates were co-authors on refereed journal publications [12-15]. Four more articles are currently in preparation.

Dr. Christopher Hay (Assistant professor ABE) is also an Extension Water Management Engineer with SDSU Extension. His research integrates field data collection and water management in field irrigation and drainage systems. Dr. Hay also leads research and extension works on developing new technology, such as biochar filter, bioreactors for improved drainage water and nutrients (and other related agricultural chemicals) management in agricultural systems. Dr. Hay has published many peer-reviewed papers in these areas. He also has an extensive experience working with students, youths and farmers with various backgrounds on a variety of national and international projects.

Dr. Lin Wei (Assistant professor ABE) has more than two decades of teaching and research experience in the fields of agricultural engineering, food engineering, and biomass conversion and bioenergy. He has taught more than 7 courses for over 250 undergraduate and graduate students. He has served as advisor/supervisor for 3 postdoctoral research associates, 6 graduate and 4 REU students (including one Native American student).

Dr. Laurent Ahiablame (Assistant Professor ABE). His research integrates field data collection with computational thinking and simulation to advance our understanding of the fate and transport of water and related constituents across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Dr. Ahiablame has published many peer-reviewed papers in these areas. He also has an extensive experience working with students with various backgrounds on a variety of national and international projects.

Dr. Aaron Franzen (Assistant professor ABE) has spent the last dozen years working in precision agriculture, sensors and control systems, and agricultural automation. His research is devoted to development of new sensing technologies for agriculture, as well the adoption of new sensor platforms from the automotive, aerospace, and consumer electronics arenas for use in agricultural production. He has mentored many groups of students in design and development of instrumentation and control systems in, at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

Dr. Daniel S. Humburg (Professor ABE) has been a faculty member at SDSU since 1991. His role is primarily in teaching Machine Systems in Agriculture. Research areas include remote sensing of crop quality, combine fire prevention in sunflowers, and precision agriculture topics. He has supervised numerous capstone design projects that have included chemical application controls as well as an inter-row covercrop seeder.


a) Student Recruitment, Selection, and Retention. Every spring (in January), an informational letter and application form describing the proposed undergraduate fellowship program will be developed and distributed to science and engineering students and faculty in target undergraduate institutions. Under-represented minorities and women undergraduate students will be actively recruited and encouraged to join this research projects through collaboration with minority universities such as Oglala Lakota College, Sisseton Wahpeton College (both are Tribal Colleges), and Benedict College (a HBCU). Additionally, the PI and Co-PIs will visit target institutions, especially emphasis on regional undergraduate institutes without significant research activities, and will introduce the program by a seminar to a broader student population. The same strategies have been successfully used by Dr. Bucking to recruit students from undergraduate institutions and we will take advantage of the already established contacts to these institutions, such as Oglala Lakota College, Black Hill University. Simultaneously, a website (on front page of SDSU) will be developed that will provide detailed information on the undergraduate fellowship program, including application material, expected research and education activities. The website of this proposed undergraduate fellowship program will also be linked to the iGrow extension website.

Students should have completed sophomore year when they enter the undergraduate fellowship program and must submit the following documentation: (1) completed application form, (2) academic transcripts, and (3) a short essay on their research interest and longer term career goals and (4) two recommendation letters. In every February, the students from South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa (< 5 hours driving) will be invited to the campus and will have the opportunity to meet the faculty mentors in person (others will be contacted by phone or online video meeting as students’ requests). This will also contribute to a better recruitment of motivated and qualified students for the program and will also allow students to get in contact with their faculty mentors early in the program. All qualified candidates will be selected by PIs and mentors (in every March) according to following criteria including: (1) a strong interest in sustainable bioenergy, water sustainability, sustainable agriculture systems, biology or engineering and an interest in working in a multidisciplinary group; (2) a good academic grades and laboratory coursework (minimum GPA of 3.0), (3) their ability to work independently as well as a part of a research team. Every year, at least 7 students from other institutes (not SDSU) will be admitted into the undergraduate fellowship program.

To increase retention of students during the undergraduate fellowship program, all admitted undergraduate students will be contacted by PI and Co-PI as well as encouraged to contact specific mentors according to students’ research interests (collected from pre-survey). All mentors will give introduction seminars of their projects in week 1. After these seminars, students will be allowed to modify their projects choices according to their interests. Therefore, all admitted students will join the research team, in which their research interests are matched, as well as the student and the mentor will agree research plan together. Same practices have been successfully conducted in our current NSF-REU program; all admitted students completed their summer research programs.

Those students, who are not admitted, will be listed in waiting lists. If some admitted students are not able to join or complete the fellowship program due to personal health or family reasons, students on waiting list will be contacted immediately and recruited into the fellowship program. In addition, undergraduates in SDSU, who demonstrates excellent academic and research achievements in research courses, will also be listed in waiting list and recruited when external undergraduates on waiting list are not available.

b) Mentoring Plan. All 15 faculty mentors involved in this project have significant experience in recruiting and mentoring undergraduate students in summer research (including many students from underrepresented groups (Fig. 1)), and have with support from NSF-REU programs (, SD Board of Regents and SD EPSCoR.


Fig. 1. Photos of partial undergraduates from underrepresented groups Native Americans (Thor from Oglala Lakota College (Tribal College), Melissa from SDSU), Hispanic American (Ashley from SDSU), Africa Americans (Ashley from Univ. of North Carolina, Adeola from Mississippi State University).

In addition, all faculty mentors involved in this proposed project have trained with great success more than 40 undergraduate students (including 2 Native Americans, 10 Africa Americans, 5 Hispanic Americans) in last 5 years and provided them with hands-on experiences in state-of-the-art bioenergy research, and we will continue these efforts. Target participants for this program are students from groups underrepresented in STEM and from smaller colleges and institutions with low research activity. Additionally, we will continue our efforts to recruit students particularly from undergraduate institutions (target institutions) U.S. wide, to provide students with valuable research experiences but also with a multicultural experience. Aids from teaching center will also be available for offering professional workshops (listed in below) to undergraduates during this fellowship program.

Professional writing and presentation. Two workshops, ‘Writing for Scientific Journals’ and ‘Professional Presentation of Scientific Work’, will be offered in the first week of the fellowship program. Scientific ethics Three workshop/discussion sessions about scientific ethics and misconduct, environmental justice in week 2 to 4 of the program These workshops will be supervised by the PI and Dr. Norm Braaten, the Research Compliance Coordinator at SDSU. Time and stress management Jeff Vostad (program director of Trio, student support services at SDSU) will give a workshop to all fellowship students for helping them handle stress and learn time management experience and strategies for a successful student career in the sciences and engineering. An additional workshop about ‘Women in Science’ (coordinated by Dr. Bucking and Dr. Clay) will be held to especially encourage female students to graduate in the sciences.

Weekly seminars (2nd ~9th week). All undergraduate students (10 in this NIFA fellowship program and possible undergraduates involved in summer research projects) will meet for a weekly seminar during the program. In the first seminars, students will be learn experimental design and statistical data analysis, professional development, and graduate school preparation. Since week 2, the students will give short research presentations describing their planned work in turn. Later in the program the students will give oral presentations about the progress in their project, but also in their team (see above) with feedback from both mentors and other students. The goal of these presentations is to develop the communication and presentation skills of the students.

Extension activities: students as mentors. To strengthen the learning experience, all students will host in week 5 K12 students for 2 days (day 1: introductory sessions, and lab visits; day 2: lab experiments). The priority will be given to high school students from 1) low-income families and from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor´s degree, 2) Native American students from Flandreau Indian School, Flandreau High School, Roosevelt High School, Joe Foss Alternative School or Washington High School in SD. These schools have a particularly high enrollment of Native American students, and of economically disadvantaged groups.

The development of independent scientists. All students will take leadership roles in all aspects of their research and learning activities to facilitate development of their independent research and learning capability. All students will be trained to design and perform the experiments independently, and interpret the results in collaboration with their faculty mentors.

c) Nature of Student Activities

Significance of the research and/or extension area. Although thermochemical platform has been developed for producing liquid fuels, there is significant concern about large (regional or national wide) scale biofuel production’s impacts on sustainability food systems and ecological services. As a result, biochar, as solid co-products of different pyrolysis and gasification processes, has been intensively investigated as soil amendments to recycle non-volatile mineral (phosphorous, potassium and other trace nutrients) [16], increase organic carbon contents in soil and water holding capacity of soil, enhance beneficial soil microbes growth and reducing leaching of nutrients and other agricultural chemicals [16-17].

However, properties of biochar heavily depends on feedstock and preparation processes, which including both thermochemical conversion processes and post-treatment of biochar. In SDSU, two USDA funded competitive projects, biochar application in soil (NIFA 2011-67009-30076) and upgrading of biochar to advanced carbon materials (NIFA 2011-67009-20030), have demonstrated that impact of biochar on crops and soil microbial growth also depended on soil type, fertilizer treatment, and biochar source, while pyrolysis condition, biomass feedstock and post-activation processes significantly changed properties (e.g. porous structure, organic compounds content and surface pH) of biochar.

This proposed undergraduate fellowship project will address the program priority area “Bioenergy, natural resource and environment” and focus on impact of biochar on agricultural chemical transferring and conversion in soils. In this project, we will evaluate the impact of biochar on different processes in soil, such as physical adsorption/desorption on porous biochar, interactions among soil microbial and biochar, nitrogen (oxidation/reduction) and organic carbon balances in soil, on mass flow, fate and transport, transformation, movement, and storage nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as emerging chemicals (e.g. animal hormones and veterinary antibiotics) during agricultural practices includes using drainage/runoff water for irrigation and application of animal waste as fertilizers. In addition, the effects of biochar preparation and post-modification will be quantified. Furthermore, all students will also learn experimental design, state-of-the-arts characterization methods of biochar, as well as data collection, analysis and critical thinking.

Biochar Preparation, Modification and Characterization

1. Impact of thermochemical processes parameters and feedstock on properties of biochar (Drs Wei; Muthu, Gu). The research projects will investigate effects of biomass species and its pretreatment on bio-char yield and quality, and impacts of parameters of different thermo-chemical conversion technologies, which are designed and optimized for producing advanced biofuels and value-added hydrocarbon products from lignocellulosic biomass (corn stover, sawdust, switchgrass, prairie cordgrass, and non-food oilseeds). The will be investigated. The students will learn pyrolysis, hydrothermal pyrolysis and gasification technologies. By working within a team, the students will also be trained in experimental plan and design, biomass feedstock preparation, pyrolysis reactor operation, bio-oil product sampling, data collecting and recording, and report writing.

2. Post modification of biochar with ultrasonic-hydrothermal treatment or ozone treatment (Drs Gu, Muthu). The undergraduate will evaluate impact of ultrasonic-hydrothermal parameters, such as temperature, time, ultrasound frequency/intensity, and solid concentration on dissolving of specific ash contents with strong base or acids; as well as the formation of liquid permeable micro-cracks on carbon matrix of biochar [18-19] and surface oxygenated functional groups on the solid surface of porous biochar[19]. Ozone will also be used to achieve more uniform surface oxidization of biochar by increasing acidic surface groups significantly[20]. After ozone treatment, increase adsorption capacity of ammonia and metal ions such as potassium, copper and zinc of biochar will be evaluated.

3. Post modification of biochar with low temperature plasma process (Drs Fan and Gu). Undergraduate, who chooses this project, will investigate an innovative plasma flash activation of biochar. Plasma is quasi-neutral ionized gas, known as the fourth state of matter. Fig. 2 illustrates the principle of generating plasma using a radio frequency (RF) electric field.

principle of generating plasma using a radio frequency
Fig. 2. RF excitation of plasma and plasma instrument.

This energy-efficient low-temperature (~150C) plasma activation with different gases (e.g. H2O, CO2, N2 or O2) significantly increase pore volume and surface of biochar [21]. Undergraduate students will also address significant gaps in the knowledge base by detecting the reactions between plasma and biochar by monitoring gas phase products with online IR detector or GC-MS; identifying and quantifying the surface chemical bonds formed with temperature programmed desorption, FTIR and transmission electron microscope).

4. Characterization of Biochar (Drs. Raynie, Fan and Gu) Students will have the opportunity to learn and apply state of the arts analysis methods, e.g. TEM, DSC, Auto-Chemical/Physical adsorption/desorption analyzers, NMR, MS, FTIR, LC, GC-MS, TGA, and DSC. The information gained from these analyses will help provide an understanding of the process mechanism, resulting in improved processes and/or alternative uses for the biochar.

Biochar Application in Agricultural Systems

5. Nutrient uptake, utilization efficiency, responsiveness of soil microorganism and crops (Dr. H. Bücking, W. Gibbons, S. Kumar). Biochar application usually increases microbial activity in soil by supplying high surface area, organic compounds as carbon source and high water holding capacity. However, biochar potentially increases content of potentially bio-toxic polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons and minerals (As, Al, Ni, Zn, Cu, Co and Cr) in soil to harmful level to interfere soil organisms and crops growth because of enrichment of minerals during pyrolysis processes. The students will analyze the nutrient efficiency of different germplasms of crops, such as prairie cordgrass and switchgrass, and will determine the responsiveness of the plants to biochar application, and the inoculation with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi or diazotrophic bacteria. In addition the students will study differences in root architectural traits, and P and N uptake efficiency by using growth chamber systems and labeling techniques with radioactive and stable isotopes.

6. Herbicide sorption and efficacy in soils treated with biochar (Dr. S Clay, S. Kumar) Herbicide sorption (both slightly positive charge and negatively charged herbicides) increased with 1 and 10% addition of biochar in both loam and sandy soils. When soils were treated with biochar pre-emergent herbicide efficacy decreased to indicator species [22]. These data indicate that if biochars are added to soil, increased herbicide amounts may be needed to maintain acceptable weed control. However, if the biochar is added to areas where runoff is expected, this may help clean clean runoff before entering streams. In this project, undergraduate will further investigate different biochar as adsorbents for minimize herbicide leaching.

7. Nutrient cycling from agricultural drainage using biochar (Drs Hua, Hay, Ahiablame Kumar and Gu) Agricultural subsurface drainage is widely used to remove excess water from the soil, enable timely field operations, improved yields, and minimizes soil compaction and salt buildup in the Midwestern United States and other areas. However, continuous export of nutrients (nitrate and phosphate) from the field to surface waters may have significant detrimental effects including toxic algal blooms, depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, and population decline in aquatic life. Undergraduate will develop a sustainable best management practice using biochar and modified biochar to recycle nutrients from agricultural subsurface drainage. The students will first work in the ABE department to characterize activated biochar produced from difference biomass. Then, the students will work in the CEE department to determine the nitrate and phosphate adsorption and desorption capacity of each biochar using Lab. scale batch and column experiments. File scale tests (described in below Task 8) will be conducted in research farm and extension station with optimal parameters obtained in lab. scale experiments.

8. Application of biochar for covercrops (Dr. Humburg) There is extensive interest and research in covercrops as a means of protecting the soil from erosion, maintaining fertility, and providing additional livestock grazing options within conventional row-crops, e.g. soybean and corn, production. However, some cover crops are adversely affected by herbicides used to manage weeds in the corn or soybean croplands. One possible mitigation of that issue would be to place biochar in the furrow with the seed. The biochar may have the ability to attenuate or eliminate the effect of the herbicide on the target seed. Undergraduates, involved in this task, will develop a seed biochar coating protocol that also make the seed for the covercrop more adaptable to a variety of metering mechanisms for the inter-row seeder.

9. Soil hydrology (Drs Hua, Hay, Ahiablame and Kumar) Biochar amended and non-amended soils from plots at research farm or cooperator fields will be used to evaluate the impact of biochar amendments. Field data collection will include infiltration/ sorptivity of different agricultural chemicals, saturated hydraulic conductivity and penetration resistance. Students will also collect soil samples from the field for further laboratory analysis including bulk density; particle size; water retention curves for field capacity, permanent wilting point, and available water capacity, saturated hydraulic conductivity (K) and other nutrients content.

10. Remote sensing for evaluating impact of biochar application and land changes (Drs. Tan and Aaron). Remote sensing technologies provide opportunities to map and monitor impact of biochar application on agricultural system at field-scales to regional scales. SDSU, in close partnership with the nearby USGS-EROS Data Center and NASA, has considerable expertise in remote sensing and geospatial sciences. Depending on student interests, research projects could relate to energy crops mapping at regional or pilot scales, or to plot-scale differentiation of biochar application related to soil biology, nutrients and disease variability. Field data measured with photo or electric sensors will be processed and used to interpret and calibrate satellite data. In the proposed undergraduate research activity, For example, polarimetric laser (532-nm wavelength) measurement will be used for data collection to quantify water content in plant leaves (Fig. 3). REU students would participate in the development of precision application technologies for biochar, including calibration and validation of applied rates, as well as field-scale assessment of the impact of biochar soil amendment for both traditional annual row crops and crops for renewable bioenergy production.

Stokes parameters measurement system

Fig. 3. Block diagram of a Stokes parameters measurement system. Photo of laboratory setup for the measurement of Stokes parameters.

d) The development of student-faculty interaction and student-student communication.

Student collaboration. In addition to working closely with their faculty mentors, all students will work collaboratively in a team according to their research field (biochar preparation, modification and characterization; biochar application for improving agricultural and environmental sustainability, economic and societal impacts). To facilitate the collaboration among undergraduate students, seminar will be held weekly, and all students will host their peers with a laboratory tour in week 5 and 10 of the program. Additionally, a common D2L (Desire2learn) web page with a chat room will be created for posting new results and a common Graduate students will also be encouraged to involved in the mentoring and supervision process of undergraduate students.

Poster competition. All fellowship students will present their research achievement and progress at the ´Biochar research day´ at SDSU that will also give other undergraduate students, who are involved in research projects, the opportunity to showcase their research project. This research day will be supported by AES and NSF EpsCor. Mentors, other SDSU’s faculties, invited external speakers, university leaders’ representatives and graduate students will also join this activity. A committee composed of mentors and other faculties will select the best poster presentation of a fellowship student.

Social activities. In the first week of the program, PIs and mentors will organize several evening and weekend activities for the students, such as softball, soccer and frisbee games, and canoe trips. Weekend trips to the Prairie grass farm and experimental farms will also be organized for the students. In week 5, an expanded 5 day trip (starting Saturday) will be organized, that will include a visit to Mount Rushmore, the South Dakota Badlands, the Black Hills National Forest, and a guided tour through the Homestake mines (the 8000 ft Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory,, and the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in south central South Dakota.

Collaboration with faculty mentors. The faculty mentors will collaborate with students on a research topic that is of mutual interest. Students and faculty mentors will meet on a regular basis (at least one meet/week). The mentors will be actively involved in the general education regarding scientific principles, hypothesis generation, experimental design, data recording and analysis, critical thinking, academic writing and the oral presentations of the research results. The mentors will also provide career development guidance.

D. Institutional Support

SDSU is showing its institutional interest in this Undergraduate Fellowship site by committing the following significant additional resources to this program: (1) summer salary for several young mentors (Drs. Ahiablame and Franzen) during the duration of the Undergraduate Fellowship program; (2) additional funds for material and supplies, and travel expenses etc.; (3) all students will receive 1 credit in undergraduate research and the required tuition and fees will be paid by the Agricultural and Biology College (this will ensure that the participating students have full access to campus health services and facilities); (4) on campus housing in 2013 built new dorm building will be provided for less than 50 % of the normal rate; (5) the participating departments will provide office space, computers and computer support for the students, (6) secretarial and administration support from participating departments; (7) sponsorship of the Biochar research day at the end of the 10 week program; (8) the Sun Grant Initiative will sponsor an award for the best presentation, that will allow the awardee to present her/his research at the next Sun Grant Annual Meeting; and (9) SDSU will provide full institutional support to recruit students particularly from underrepresented groups in science and engineering.


Primary goal of this undergraduate fellowship project is to provide motivated and qualified undergraduate students with a hands-on research experience in state of the art multidiscipline research laboratories, which could encourage them to pursue graduate school leading to a career as a research scientist or engineer. Goals of the involved research mentors and departments are to recruit undergraduate students, who can accomplish proposed research tasks and achieve proposed technique goals of this “Impact of Biocahr on Lifecycles of Agricultural Chemicals and Soil Microorganism” program, and who will later continue their career in agricultural science or engineering graduate programs. All of these goals should be considered for evaluating the success of the undergraduate fellowship program. We will undertake both annual formative and summative evaluations of the project and the student’s experience.

The annual formative evaluations will include: (1) a pre-assessment of the pool of undergraduate applicants with basic questions to evaluate the student´s knowledge of agricultural science and engineering principles related to proposed research tasks proposed in this fellowship program, (2) an anonymous pre-survey and a mid-program survey of the students perceptions of science and engineering expectations, (3) weekly meetings between the fellowship students and student mentors of the departments. A PhD or MS graduate student in the same research group will also be assigned as mentor, who acts as a conduit between the undergraduates and the faculty mentors, and (4) a weekly meeting of all students and all faculty mentors of the program. Students will be required to give oral progress reports rotationally to the faculty mentors and other students. These weekly meetings will be used to evaluate progress of the ongoing research projects and to promote the communication skills of the students. The summative evaluation in 10th week will include: (1) an exit interview with PIs and an anonymous survey to evaluate the student’s individual progress in knowledge of science and engineering principles related to not only proposed research tasks but also wide range of agricultural research areas, and an evaluation of their supervisors (faculties and graduates) and the research training environment. This information will help us to reevaluate and to improve the program in the following years; (2) a follow up survey that will be mailed to the students for at least three consecutive years after they have finished their program. This survey will help us to evaluate the impact of the program on student career expectations and decisions. The questionnaire will contain questions about their exposure to research before and after the program, and questions about the student’s attitudes towards research and their confidence before and after the fellowship training to work on research projects. We will continue to use for the anonymous surveys. If needed this survey will also be supplemented with phone or online video interviews of the students; and (3) a final report by the students in form of a peer-reviewed journal manuscript will be collected at the end of each summer and a poster that will be evaluated by the committee of faculty mentors. Efforts will be made to turn the student reports into published peer-reviewed journal articles and presentations at professional meetings. The undergraduates will also be encouraged to present their results at different national meetings. We will establish a FACEBOOK and Google professional group and use these groups to continuously contact with the students and to track their careers after they have finished the program.

F. Dissemination plan

All fellowship students are required to prepare both a final report in the form of a mini-thesis and a poster at the end of the program, as well as submit weekly research reports on D2L, and to present their results rotationally during the weekly seminars. In addition, all written reports will later be combined and published in the SDSU Undergraduate Research Journal. Knowledge gained through the proposed research will also be transferred to agricultural producers, policy makers, other stakeholders, and the general public through a variety of outlets to include the iGrow and SD Water Resources Institute websites; Extension publications; field days; water and soils related meetings, forums, workshops, and conferences; and press releases to agricultural and popular press outlets. The students will be involved in the development and delivery of these Extension programs so that they gain experience in technology transfer for communicating research-based information to lay audiences.

All mentors will be required to publish peer reviewed Journal articles based on innovative results in scientific discovery, such as “Controlling adsorption/desorption selectivity through plasma modifying pore structure and surface properties of biochar”, “Understand nutrient retention and cycling at watershed scales: Impact of Watershed biogeochemistry due to field-watershed scale application of biochar in soil”, “Impacts of large scale application of biochar on crops growth detected by Photo-sensor with precision agriculture modeling”.