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Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon

Norway's Crown Prince Haakon, second from left, toured the Cargill Microbial and Plant Genomics building with Dean Robert Elde in October.

An energizing collaboration

By Greg Breining

From M, winter 2006

Minnesota has many historic ties to Norway through its people--North Shore fishermen, Norwegian farmers, and other descendants of 19th-century immigrants. Less well known are present-day collaborations on the cutting edge of science and technology.

Norway's Crown Prince Haakon traveled to Minnesota in October to trade on both of these relationships--historical and present-day--in making a gift for the future: $750,000 from the Norwegian government to the University of Minnesota to help fund the Norwegian Centennial Interdisciplinary Chair in genomics and renewable biofuels. The award coincided with the 100th anniversary of Norway's split from Sweden.

The chair will rotate between a research professor at the University of Minnesota and a visiting colleague from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, said Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, which will administer the chair. Together the two professors will form teams to foster collaboration between people from the two schools.

The seed for the gift was planted seven years ago, when academic and business leaders from Minnesota began exchanging visits with their colleagues in Norway. Soon after, scientists from the two institutions began collaborating.

Minnesota and Norway are similar in the potential sources they have for developing renewable energy, including wind, hydrogen, and agriculturally produced resources. They also have similar challenges related to renewable energy, agriculture, and the environment. Benefits from the research collaborations, helped through the leadership of the chair, are likely to flow both ways by pooling scientific expertise to solve these similar problems.

One promising project has been using airborne LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to assess, from a passing airplane, the potential biofuel in tree plantations or other forests. LiDAR is similar to radar but much more precise, reading the bounce-back of a pinpoint laser beam to determine land elevation and record objects as small as a walnut. LiDAR can quickly provide information on tree size, forest type, and canopy density. Until now, researchers collected this information through laborious on-the-ground sampling.

Another renewable energy collaboration has investigated the use of microwaves to reduce biomass, such as wood, into liquid fuels that are easy to handle and transport. On-site conversion, rather than transportation of bulky raw materials, may be able to add value to farmers' or foresters' products.

Other projects are strongly linked to genomics research. "Bio-based approaches to energy rely on understanding microbial and plant genomics," Elde explained. "Genomics also provides a basis for improving production in dairy cattle, preventing disease in cereal crops, and developing vaccines against pathogenic bacteria that threaten food safety as well as animal and human health."

Renewable energy and agricultural-based renewable fuels and bioproducts hold promise as a way of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, which are not renewable. "Work in these areas can have a huge impact on our environment, the cost of energy and even the safety of our food," said Elde.