RAPID CITY, S.D. — Donnie Decker grew up on a family farm in eastern South Dakota. As a farm kid, he loved rural life, but his love of science formed his career path. Today he teaches high school math and science in the picturesque ranching town of Newell, SD.
“Having grown up on a family farm, I really enjoy teaching in a rural town with such a focus on agriculture,” says Decker. “My students think very practically, so I am excited when I find ways to incorporate local concepts into my curriculum. This can be difficult when also trying to meet the content standards which is why I was excited to join the RET program at South Dakota Mines.”
In the fall of 2021 Decker joined a Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program in the Karen M. Swindler Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at South Dakota Mines where he began working in the Composite and Nanocomposite Advanced Manufacturing – Biomaterials (CNAM Bio) Center. Decker soon found that at CNAM-Bio he could bring together his love of science and agriculture.
Researchers at CNAM-Bio are making significant advancements in developing safe and clean ways for farmers to convert agricultural waste like corn stalks into valuable products. Tanvi Govil is a Ph.D. student with CNAM-BIO. Her research helped open a pathway to transform corn stalks into a commercially valuable biodegradable bioplastic while eliminating costly pretreatments. CNAM-Bio is led by David Salem, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Composites and Polymer Engineering Laboratory (CAPE) at Mines, with Rajesh Sani, Ph.D., professor of chemical and biological engineering, as co-principal investigator on the project. Sani and Salem are now working with Govil to expand the research to produce other value-added, environmentally friendly bioplastics and biofertilizers using their advanced technology. This work has a huge economic potential as the global plastic market alone was valued at $435 billion in 2020.
“With the accelerating push towards sustainable production, bio-based manufacturing is poised to overtake petroleum-based production of chemicals in the next two or three decades, and South Dakota is exceptionally well-positioned to become a global leader and major beneficiary in the new industrial landscape dominated by bioproducts,” says Salem.
This past fall, Decker worked alongside Govil, learning the mechanisms microbes use to degrade plant biomass and how this technology could be implemented in South Dakota to turn agricultural waste into a new source of revenue for farmers and ranchers today. For Decker, this hits home. The research could greatly benefit his own family. His parents run the Steve and Beth Decker family farm in Spink County, SD.
“When I learned what Dr. Sani, Dr. Salem and Tanvi were doing with their research and understood what it could mean to my family, I was thrilled,” says Decker. “I also saw a complex science topic that my students could relate to. Farming, education and sustainability are all very important to me, and I saw this research as a way to bring them all together.”
Decker collected corn stalks, corn silage and soybean plants from his father’s farm and brought them back to the lab at Mines where they are being analyzed and enriched for possible future use. There is even a chance Decker could find a previously undiscovered microbe species, which he could name after his family farm.
Eager to help find scientific breakthroughs that hold promising commercialization potential, the Decker family invited Sani and Govil to visit their Spink County farm. The researchers were delighted to accept, given the major focus of their own work is on helping South Dakota farmers by finding new uses for massive amounts of leftover corn stalks generated each year across rural America.
“This partnership was built on mutual trust and respect between the Decker’s and the CNAM-Bio team. It did not develop all at once, but through the research experiments of Donnie Decker with the team and personal meetings with the Decker family. We’re very fortunate to make this kind of connection,” says Sani.
Researchers are planning to increase connections with producers in rural America in the coming year with more visits to farms and ranches.
“I’m happy Mines researchers made time to come and hear from the producers firsthand and see what their challenges and issues are and where they may be able to help,” says Scott Decker, a neighboring farmer near the Steve and Beth Decker family farm.
Researchers on the CNAM-Bio team are optimistic that these connections and their work can yield real results that boost the viability of the state’s number one industry, agriculture.
“Visits like this will continue to strengthen the bond between farmers and Mines researchers and help find practical and helpful answers that will improve the competitiveness of our country’s agricultural industry,” Govil says.
The research in CNAM-Bio at Mines is funded by the South Dakota Governor’s Office and corporate collaborators and is directed at providing a pipeline of innovation for scale-up and commercial level demonstration at the new POET Bioproducts Institute in Brookings.
About South Dakota Mines
Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,418 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 97 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $66,150. For these reasons College Factual ranks South Dakota Mines, the #1 Engineering School for Return on Investment.
— South Dakota Mines