All course information is listed within this syllabus.

FOR 880: Biomass Feedstocks (3 credits). 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

Instructor for FOR 880

John E. Carlson, Ph.D.
Professor of Molecular Genetics

323 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-863-9164

When you need to contact Dr. Carlson or specific module instructors regarding the course, the best way to reach us is through Canvas Inbox. We will do our best to respond within 48 hours.

Other Instructors

Instructor for FOR 880

Marvin H. Hall, Ph.D.
Professor of Agronomy

241 Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building
University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-863-1019

Instructor for FOR 880

Marc E. McDill, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Forest Management

310 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-865-1602

Instructor for FOR 880

Greg Roth, Ph.D.
Professor of Agronomy

407 Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building
University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-863-1018

Course Overview

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 a 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 the 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 and 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

Course Schedule

For due dates, refer to the Course Summary on the Syllabus page in Canvas.

Course Materials

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.

Assignments and Grading Policy

Grading Criteria
Requirement Cumulative Point Value
Matrix Assignment 275
Quizzes 100
Presentation 50
TOTAL: 425
Grading Scheme
Rating Letter Grade Percentage Points
Excellent A 100% – 93% 372–400
A- < 93% – 88% 352–371
Good B+ < 88% – 82% 328–351
B < 82% – 77% 308–327
B- < 77% – 72% 288–307
C+ < 72% – 66% 264–287
Satisfactory C < 66% – 61% 244–263
D < 61% – 56% 224–243
Failure F < 56% 0–223

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 Saturdays 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)
Starch and Sugar Crops (Module 2) Saturday of Module 2 Saturday of Module 3 Saturday of Module 4
Crop Residues (Module 3) Saturday of Module 3 Saturday of Module 4 Saturday of Module 5
Oil Seed Crops (Module 4) Saturday of Module 4 Saturday of Module 5 Saturday of Module 6
Switchgrass (Module 5) Saturday of Module 5 Saturday of Module 6 Saturday of Module 7
Miscanthus (Module 6) Saturday of Module 6 Saturday of Module 7 Saturday of Module 8
Short Rotation Woody Crops (Module 8) Saturday of Module 8 Saturday of Module 9 Saturday of Module 10
Wood from Natural Forests (Module 9) Saturday of Module 9 Saturday of Module 10 Saturday of Module 11
Algae (Module 11) Saturday of Module 11 Saturday of Module 12 Saturday of Module 13
Jatropha (Module 12) Saturday of Module 12 Saturday of Module 13 Saturday of Module 14
Feedstock comparison Saturday of Module 13 Saturday of Module 14 Saturday 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 the 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 Canvas website on the "Library Resources" page, accessible from the course navigation menu.

Your write-ups for each topic should be in the form of a Word document and uploaded to that topic's discussion forum in Canvas. The class will be divided into groups of 3-5 students for the purpose of giving feedback on your feedstock write-ups. 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 discussion forum. After receiving feedback from the other members of your group, you should submit the final draft of the write-up to the final draft submission page. 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.

Requirement Point Value

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.
4 Quizzes (25 pts each) 100 pts.
Presentation 50 pts.
Total Possible Points 400 pts.

Grades and comments on your assignments will be returned by the instructors within one week unless otherwise indicated.

Please refer to the University Grading Policy for Graduate Courses for additional information.

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" under World Campus Student Resources.

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 an introduction to help you feel comfortable navigating the library website to find valuable information for your coursework.

Technical Requirements

This course is offered online and it is assumed you possess the minimum system requirements and computing skills to participate effectively. A list of technical requirements is listed on World Campus' Penn State Technical Requirements page.

Minimum Skills

  • You should have an understanding of basic computer usage (creating folders/directories, switching between programs, formatting and backing up media, accessing the internet).
  • You must be able to conduct word processing tasks such as creating, editing, saving, and retrieving documents.
  • You must be able to use a web browser to open web pages, download files, and search the internet.
  • You must be able to use an e-mail program to send and receive messages and to attach and download documents/files.
  • You must be able to download and install programs or plug-ins from the internet.

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