FOR 880 Syllabus

FOR 880: Biomass Feedstocks (3). This course provides a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics, production, and improvement of plants as feedstocks for conversion to energy. This course is to be taken after ABE 884: Biomass Energy Systems.

Course Coordinator

Marvin H. Hall, Ph.D.

Marvin H. Hall, Ph.D.
Professor of Agronomy
241 Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802

Other Instructors

John E. Carlson, Ph.D.

John E. Carlson, Ph.D.
Professor of Molecular Genetics
323 Forest Resources Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802

Marc E. McDill, Ph.D.

Marc E. McDill, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Forest Management
310 Forest Resources Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802

Greg Roth, Ph.D.

Greg Roth, Ph.D.
Professor of Agronomy
407 Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802
(814) 863-1018

Course Description

This course will discuss global issues related to how diminishing fossil fuel supplies, increasing demand for energy, and national security are contributing to rapid growth in the use of renewable biomass as a source of energy. The urgency for transition to bioenergy is increasing with problems associated with rising atmospheric levels of CO2 and increasing evidence of climate change. Biomass from plants produced in the agricultural, forestry, and biofermentation industries are all suitable for the primary energy sectors of electricity, liquid transportation fuels, and heating. Energy from crop biomass will also provide greater energy returns and far-reaching environmental benefits.

Biomass crops fall into four main categories – annual crops, perennial grasses, woody biomass, and fermentable organisms such as algae and even cellulose-producing bacteria. The characteristics of the cellulosic biomass that is produced differ among types and species of feedstock, as do the requirements for large scale production. Much research is underway to improve the quality and quantity of feedstocks, and to develop additional alternatives. A variety of feedstocks and production areas will be required to assure economic and environmental sustainability of the bioenergy sector.

Thus the goal of this course is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics, production, and improvement of the major categories of feedstocks in the context of sustainable energy production.

Course Objectives

This course will serve as a required core course in the BioEnergy Option of the proposed Intercollege Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems Program.

This course objective is to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics, production, and improvement of all of the major types of biomass energy feedstocks.

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Evaluate the range of feedstock alternatives.
  2. Differentiate how feedstocks differ in composition and use.
  3. Describe how feedstocks are produced.
  4. Recall approaches to further improve feedstocks.
  5. Critically evaluate feedstock suitability for specific projects.

Learning Environment

This course provides the primary instructional materials for the course. The Orientation Module   contains important Canvas tutorials. Canvas, Penn State's course management system, is used to support the delivery of this course, as well as, it provides the primary communications, calendaring, and submission tools for the course.

Topics of Study

The content of this course is divided into 15 modules. Each module will be completed in approximately 1 week.

  • Course Introduction and objectives
  • Policy issues and overview of biofuels; cropping systems
  • Sources of woody biomass; Biomass from conventional forests
  • Logistics, economics, and environmental impacts of woody biomass
  • Short-rotation woody biomass crops
  • Starch-based crops and Sugar based crops
  • Oil seed crops and Annual crop residues
  • Species, characteristics, adaptability, and how perennials grow
  • Establishment and production of perennials
  • Harvesting, densification, and utilization
  • Algae and other fermentation feedstocks
  • Emerging feedstock
  • Agroforestry and mixed croppings
  • Genetics, genomics, and biotechnology for biomass crop improvement
  • Course Project and Presentation

Assignments and Grading

Matrix Assignment Total 250
Presentation   50
Quizzes (4 total 25 pts each) 100
Total 400
Grading Scale
Excellent A 372 - 400 93 - 100%
  A- 352 - 371 <93 - 88%
Good B+ 328 - 351 <88 - 82%
  B 308 - 327 <82 - 77%
  B- 288 - 307 <77 - 72%
  C+ 264 - 287 <72 - 66%
Satisfactory C 244 - 263 <66 - 61%
  D 224 - 243 <61 - 56%
Failure F 0 - 223 <56%

Matrix Assignment

As you progress through this course, you will learn about different bioenergy feedstocks. As you learn about these feedstocks, we want you to consider and write briefly about a common set of questions related to issues that apply more-or-less to all feedstocks. We like to think about this assignment as a matrix where the rows are feedstocks and the columns are different aspects of feedstock production. As you progress through the semester, you will fill in a new “row” in the matrix as you complete each feedstock. When the semester is over, you can review each aspect of feedstock production and make comparisons across feedstocks. For your final writing assignment, you will choose one aspect of feedstock production (i.e., one “column” of the matrix) and write a comparison of the different feedstocks focusing on that topic.

Each writing assignment is due on Fridays of each week as indicated in the table below.

Team Matrix Assignment

(Choose 8 plus Feedstock Comparison to complete)

Due date to submit initial write-up  (worth 15 pts unless otherwise indicated) Due date to submit feedback (worth 5 pts unless otherwise indicated) Due date for submitting final write-up (worth 5 pts unless otherwise indicated)
Short Rotation Woody Crops (Module 2) Friday of Module 2 Friday of Module 3 Friday of Module 4
Wood from Natural Forests (Module 4) Friday of Module 4 Friday of Module 5 Friday of Module 6
Starch and Sugar Crops (Module 5) Friday of Module 5 Friday of Module 6 Friday of Module 7
Crop Residues (Module 6) Friday of Module 6 Friday of Module 7 Friday of Module 8
Oil Seed (Module 7) Friday of Module 7 Friday of Module 8 Friday of Module 9
Switchgrass (Module 8) Friday of Module 8 Friday of Module 9 Friday of Module 10
Miscanthus (Module 9) Friday of Module 9 Friday of Module 10 Friday of Module 11
Algae (Module 11) Friday of Module 11 Friday of Module 12 Friday of Module 13
Jatropha (Module 12) Friday of Module 12 Friday of Module 13 Friday of Module 14
Feedstock comparison Friday of Module 13 Friday of Module 14 Friday of Module 15

The dates following each writing assignment are:

  1. when your initial write-up on that feedstock is due,
  2. when your feedback on other students’ write-ups is due, and
  3. when your final write-up for that feedstock is due.

For each of the first 9 writing assignments, you will answer a common set of questions, listed below, about a feedstock you have just covered. Your final writing assignment will focus on one aspect of feedstock production, and compare the different feedstocks from the perspective of that topic. For example, you may want to compare the economics of production for the different feedstocks (see the list of topics below). Note that you only need to do a write-up for eight out of the nine feedstocks; i.e., you can take a pass on one feedstock. You must do writing assignment 10, however.

The topics we want you to consider for each feedstock write-up are listed below. For each topic, we have provided a set of questions related to that topic. You do not need to address each question for each feedstock. The questions are just there to get you thinking. Ideally, we want you to write two to four paragraphs (~50-250 words) for each topic, based on information you have learned from the module and information you have found from your own research. However, some topics may be more or less relevant for a given feedstock, and it is acceptable to write less for topics that are less relevant.

The topics are:

  1. Biology of production – What are potential production rates and yields for this feedstock (e.g., dry tons per acre per year)? What kinds of areas (e.g., soil types) are ideal for producing this feedstock? What kinds of areas are not well-suited for growing this feedstock? Would this crop be suitable in your region (you define the region: county, state, multi-state region, country, etc.)? If so, how much area in your region could potentially be dedicated to producing this feedstock? What kinds of inputs are needed to grow this feedstock?
  2. Economics of production – What are the key factors that affect the economic viability of this feedstock in your region? What does it cost to produce this feedstock (e.g., $ per dry ton)? What are the most important factors affecting the cost of production? What kind of market demand exists or could potentially exist for this type of feedstock in your region?
  3. Genetic improvement – What is the potential for increasing the yields, quality, biomass composition and end-product uses, or decreasing the cost of producing this feedstock, through genetic improvement and/or biotechnology?
  4. Logistics of transport and/or processing – What type of logistical challenges do/will producers of this feedstock face? What type of processing facilities there is currently or would be needed? What kind of transportation infrastructure is required? How much would processing and/or transportation add to the cost of producing energy with this feedstock?
  5. Environmental benefits and concerns – What are some of the potential environmental risks associated with the production of this feedstock? To what degree can these environmental risks be mitigated? Are there/would there be environmental co-benefits from producing this feedstock?
  6. Carbon implications – What is the potential impact on carbon emissions of producing energy with this feedstock? What other energy sources is this feedstock likely to replace? How would the carbon emissions of producing this feedstock compare with emissions from alternative energy sources?
  7. Integration with existing infrastructure – What kind of infrastructure – e.g., farm equipment, processing facilities, roads, transportation modes – would large-scale energy production with this feedstock require? To what extent would the large-scale production of energy with this feedstock require investment in new infrastructure?

In some cases, specific information on a topic area may not be provided in that module. In such cases, you should do some research on your own to address that topic. The Penn State Library has provided an excellent guide designed to assist you in searching the literature specific to this course. The Library Guide is available to you through the course's Angel website on the "Resources" page. Click on "Library Guide" and you will see tabs for each of the course sections.

Your write-ups for each topic should be in the form of a Word document and uploaded to Yammer. The class will be divided into groups of 3-5 students for the purpose of giving feedback on your feedstock write-ups in Yammer. You then turn in your final draft Word document on the feedstock(s) covered in that section. You should read the write-ups of the other members of your group and give them feedback in the form of comments in their document. After receiving feedback from the other members of your group, you should turn in the final draft of the write-up in the dropbox for that feedstock in ANGEL. Your write-up on each feedstock is worth 10 points, part of which will be based on the quality and timeliness of your feedback to the others in your group.

Each of the eight feedstocks write-ups is worth 25 points, including 5 points for your feedback on other students’ write-ups. The feedstock comparison write-up is worth 50 points, including 10 points for the feedback you provide to other students. The total value of the matrix assignment is 250 points.


There are 4 quizzes in this course. For each section, there will be a quiz that will become accessible during the last week of that section. You can take the quiz anytime during that week. Please note that each quiz will only open once, so you will need to answer all of the questions at one sitting. Each quiz is worth 25 points, totaling 100 points.


Toward the end of the course, you will also produce a presentation on your feedstock of choice. The presentation should be prepared using PowerPoint slides to which you will add a voice recording. Presentations should be between 10 and 15 minutes long. After the presentations are turned in you will view each other’s presentations and post one or more questions to each presenter. Questions should be polite, thoughtful and require more than a simple (e.g., “yes” or “no”) answer. The presenter will then add responses to the questions posed on their presentations. The due dates for this assignment are:

  1. Presentations completed and posted to the discussion due by Friday of Module 14
  2. Questions posted for other’s presentations to the discussion due by Wednesday of Module 15
  3. Responses to questions posted to the discussion due by Friday of Module 15

The presentation assignment is worth 50 points: 30 points for the presentation itself, 10 points for your questions, and 10 points for your responses to the questions.


Matrix Assignment Total

  • Initial Write-up (8 x 15 pts.=120 pts.)
  • Feedback (8 x 5 pts.= 40 pts.)
  • Feedstock Comparison
    (Initial write-up 30 pts.+ Feedback 10 pts. +
    Final draft 10 pts. = 50 pts.)
250 pts.
Quizzes (4 @ 25 pts each) 100 pts.
Presentation 50 pts.
Total Possible Points 400 pts.

Online Students Use of the Library

As Penn State World Campus students, you have access to many of the materials that the library offers to students. The library website has a lot to offer, but can be overwhelming. A guide has been created to serve as your introduction to important library resources, services, and important pages within the library. The Online Student Library Guide is updated regularly by the online librarian and is intended to provide a level of comfort through introduction to help you feel comfortable navigating the library website to find valuable information for your coursework.


There is not a required textbook for this course but additional course readings and materials will be provided with each lesson.

This course requires that you access Penn State library materials specifically reserved for this course. To access these materials, click on the Library Resources link on the left navigation menu in Canvas.

Course Schedule

For assignment due dates refer to your Canvas Syllabus under the Assignments Summary heading.

NOTE: If you are planning to graduate this semester, please communicate your intent to graduate to your instructor. This will alert your instructor to the need to submit your final grade in time to meet the published graduation deadlines. For more information about graduation policies and deadlines, please see "Graduation" on the World Campus Student Policies Web site.

PSU Policies

Log-In Policy

Students are expected to log-in regularly to keep up-to-date with announcements, discussions, etc. The class will progress at a regular pace throughout the semester and there are specific due dates and times for assignments, etc.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner. Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity at The Pennsylvania State University, and all members of the University community are expected to act in accordance with this principle. Consistent with this expectation, students should act with personal integrity, respect other students' dignity, rights, and property, and help create and maintain an environment in which all can succeed through the fruits of their efforts. Academic integrity includes a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation or deception. Such acts of dishonesty violate the fundamental ethical principles of the University community and compromise the worth of work completed by others (see Faculty Senate Policy 49-20, G-9 Procedures and the Code of Conduct).

Read the Academic Integrity Guidelines for the College of Agricultural Sciences

A lack of knowledge or understanding of the University’s Academic Integrity policy and the types of actions it prohibits and/or requires does not excuse one from complying with the policy. Penn State and the College of Agricultural Sciences take violations of academic integrity very seriously. Faculty, alumni, staff and fellow students expect each student to uphold the University’s standards of academic integrity both inside and outside of the classroom.

Copyright Notice

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

Accommodations for Persons with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University’s educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources Web site provides contact information for every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources Web site.

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Accommodations for Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Use of Trade Names

Where trade names are used, no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the World Campus, Outreach and Cooperative Extension, the College of Agricultural Sciences, or The Pennsylvania State University is implied.

Subject to Change Statement

Please note that this Course Syllabus is subject to change. Students are responsible for abiding by such changes.